Can this peace mission be saved?

With the arrest of the Palestinian intifada's ground commander Marwan Barghouthi, Ariel Sharon is riding high. But Colin Powell hasn't given up yet.


Aluf Benn
April 17, 2002 1:40AM (UTC)

Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived on his rescue mission in the Middle East only to find two intransigent leaders committed to destroying each other but benefiting from renewed public popularity, even as their policies bring disaster to both peoples.

Every day the toughest realities of the Israeli-Palestinian war have only added to Powell's difficulties with Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. Another suicide bombing in central Jerusalem on Friday derailed his mission for 24 hours. On Saturday the chief diplomat of the world's sole superpower found himself locked up in his Jerusalem hotel, hastily filling his schedule by meeting clergymen and relief workers from the West Bank, until Arafat issued a condemnation of the Friday bombing, which put the trip back on track for Sunday. Powell spent Monday on an unplanned hop to Beirut and Damascus, aiming to prevent an outbreak of war along Israel's northern border.

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And then, with Powell across the border on his way back to Jerusalem, Israel announced the capture of Marwan Barghouthi, head of the Tanzim militia of the Fatah, Arafat's own faction. Barghouthi is perceived in Israel as the field leader of the current Palestinian intifada and, in some circles, as a possible heir to the current leadership. His arrest is bound to make Powell's mission harder, just as the interception of the arms ship Karine A in January undermined the mission of the American envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.

Powell's goals were to achieve a stable cease-fire, evacuate the Israeli army from the West Bank cities it occupied, and help ease the suffering of the Palestinian population with a plan for humanitarian aid. Soon enough, he faced a standoff. Arafat refused to make any progress toward a cease-fire until Israel withdrew from its freshly occupied positions. Sharon ignored President Bush's public calls for withdrawal "without delay" and vowed to "complete the mission" before pulling out the tanks and troops from Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and Nablus. This move was further complicated by Israel's demand that the Palestinians turn over wanted suspects who took refuge at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and inside Arafat's besieged Ramallah headquarters, where Powell came to visit on Sunday.

On Monday, positions seemed to harden. While Sharon told CNN that Israel would withdraw from Jenin and Nablus within a week, he said troops would remain in Bethlehem and Ramallah until the Palestinian terrorists that Israel seeks are handed over. He also insisted there is not "any possibility" Israel would be able to reach an agreement with Arafat.

But while Israeli officials give little hope for Powell's success, they cannot afford to humiliate him. There is deep cynicism about Arafat, but there has been some division within the government about Sharon's refusal to deal with him. Israeli intelligence says that Arafat has no incentive to forgo terrorism as his political tool as long as he sees no hope for a generous peace proposal from Sharon. After all, Arafat rejected as insufficient the proposals of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former President Clinton, and Sharon is willing to offer him much less. Thus, the tactical deadlock over what comes first, withdrawal or cease-fire, is a mere reflection of the much deeper mistrust and differences over substance. Yet some in Sharon's government, including Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, continue to say Israel must deal with Arafat, as Powell so far insists. But they may be defeated as the battle lines harden in the days to come.

As an indication of the poor chances for Powell's mission, even Moshe Katzav, Israel's state president, whose job is largely ceremonial, bashed the secretary. "Your friendship is very important to us, but the American call for withdrawal has hurt Israel. It's unacceptable, as we fight for our lives and our blood sheds, to receive such public censure. It could have been said in private channels," Katzav told Powell on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Sharon has begun to try to convince the Americans, through conversations with Powell and other channels, that their key Middle East objective -- a regime change that topples Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- can be accomplished without rescuing Arafat. Israelis widely believe that the renewed U.S. interest in a Middle East peace deal reflects the need to win Arab support for toppling Hussein -- and Arab governments are supporting Arafat as the righteous representative of the Palestinian people. But Sharon told Powell this weekend that the United States is making a mistake by giving Arafat the keys to its plans in Iraq -- and there is increasing evidence that others in the Bush administration agree, once again isolating Powell as the lone American Arafat defender as he tries to broker an almost impossible peace.

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So far, Powell has moved cautiously in the region. While he called on Sharon to withdraw and told Arafat that Palestinian terror should stop, he refrained from banging heads and did not back his words with a big stick of threats, toward either side. In fact, Powell accepted both sides' core arguments. He agreed that the Palestinians could not do much to promote security and fight terror, as long as they see Israeli tanks outside their windows and watch their security organizations get destroyed by crushing Israeli attacks. Similarly, Powell tried to use the Israeli withdrawal to extract concrete security commitments from Arafat, proposing a phased pullout from the cities, in return for a gradual recovery of the Palestinian security apparatus.

To date these ideas have been met by stubborn rejection from the leaders. Sharon and Defense Minister Ben Eliezer told Powell not to give any "discounts" to Arafat, claiming that he still has a formidable force under his command, especially in places that were exempt from the Israeli invasion, like Gaza. In the usual mirror image, the Palestinians told Powell that without a timetable for Israeli withdrawal, there would be no commitments on their side.

Sharon used the impasse to float his idea of a regional conference of leaders to discuss peacemaking and economic recovery. His only precondition is the exclusion of Arafat, inviting other Palestinian participants in his place. Powell was less enthusiastic, but Arafat grabbed the opportunity to embrace the conference plan, as long as it included him. Egypt and Jordan quickly announced that the Palestinian leader should be invited, and his exclusion would be a nonstarter. American officials made clear that Arafat is essential to any renewed peace process, although later Monday, Powell floated the idea that the conference be arranged as a convening of foreign ministers, which would sidestep the question of Arafat's attending. But mostly Israel's attempts to isolate Arafat have backfired by forcing the other players to support him. Powell was expected to meet with Arafat again on Tuesday, but late Monday came word that the meeting had been postponed, at least until Wednesday.

From an Israeli standpoint, the Powell visit is more about cutting losses than about true gains. Operation "Defensive Shield," the code name for the West Bank invasion, enjoys vast popular support. Its inception has mostly halted the deadly string of daily suicide attacks, despite two exceptions, last Wednesday in Haifa and Friday in Central Jerusalem. The Barghouthi arrest came as a new boost to a public with low morale.

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The military, however, is more sober. Israeli defense officials talk about "a temporary setback" of Palestinian terror capabilities, which might reduce the level of attacks for four to six months, but not much longer. Military intelligence foresees an immediate upsurge in terror attacks following a withdrawal, to show that the Palestinians haven't lost their ground under the attack, and then a period of reduction, due to the loss of "infrastructure" -- meaning midlevel activists, explosives labs and other weapons. As this infrastructure recovers, terror attacks would rise again.

Israel's attempt to "isolate" Arafat by surrounding his Ramallah office with elite troops has essentially failed, so far. Powell punctured the Israeli seal by coming to see the besieged leader. Military intelligence has told Ben Eliezer that Arafat consolidated his power under siege. Once more he proved his survival abilities, and remained the sole contact for dialogue. No political figure in the territories is ready to challenge his leadership. Nevertheless, a few Palestinian figures started to discuss the post-Arafat era, and even though his symbolic stance is stronger, by his own admission he has weaker influence on the ground. The proponents of his expulsion believe that he would be even weaker from a thousand miles away.

On the diplomatic level, of course, the Israeli operation has been even less successful. Lacking a clear political goal, instead of strengthening Israel's stance in fighting terrorism, it eroded the country's international position vis-`-vis the Palestinians. As the fighting dragged on, global public opinion turned against Israel, seeing it as the attacker, recalling Sharon's past excesses in Beirut and elsewhere. Western newspapers over the weekend were filled with reporters' accounts of what the Palestinians are calling a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp, where Israel says perhaps 100 died and the locals put the figure at 600, mostly civilians. Few seem to remember that the invasion came as a reaction to the "Seder massacre" on March 27, when 28 Israelis were slaughtered as they had their annual Passover rite at a seaside hotel in Netanya.

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Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, typically worried about world reaction, warned of severe damage to Israel's global stance, especially in Europe, which already threatens Israel with economic sanctions. "Powell should not leave here as a failure, given our delicate position in the United States," Peres told a group of friends and political allies on Sunday.

Military planners in Israel believe that their operation should have been much shorter and more strategic, instead of going house to house searching for Palestinian gunmen. Moreover, they worry that the army wasted its strategic reserve, having mobilized 30,000 reserve troops for a dubious operation with uncertain results. The decisive move toward "a strategic change" in Israel's favor was postponed to the next round in the war, if not lost altogether.

In policy recommendations to their political masters, the IDF planners suggest that Israel should aim for the expulsion of Arafat "after the next round," rather than now, after reaching a quiet understanding about his future with Washington. American support is seen as necessary to overcome the opposition of Egypt and Jordan, whose tacit understanding is critical for doing away with Arafat. Israel could live with another public rift with Amman and Cairo, but would be reluctant to sacrifice the peace treaties with them. Currently, Jordan and Egypt are fiercely opposing any move to replace Arafat.

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The prevailing mood in Israel today sees no chance for any deal with Arafat. The military sought to reach some kind of an interim, or a bridging deal, with the Palestinian leader, and build it gradually through periods of relative quiet on the ground. Israel failed to use the opportunity of Arafat's declared cease-fire last December, and then ruined it completely with targeted assassinations. The subsequent escalation of suicide bombings since late February convinced the IDF that Arafat encourages terrorism, and that it's pointless to deal with him anymore. The intelligence community shares the assessment that Arafat will never fight terror.

"We don't think that terror will go away with Arafat," a defense official told me, "but as long as he's in power, there is no chance for a deal that would truly stop terrorism." This is the logic behind the expulsion scheme. The means to achieve it are through convincing the Americans that Israel did everything to stop the war, cooperated with Powell and gave another chance for a cease-fire. If Arafat can be blamed for a Powell failure, Israelis believe Washington may be more open to throwing him out. The trump card in Israel's deck is its acceptance of a cease-fire proposal devised by American envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni three weeks ago. Arafat refused to follow suit, and now the Israelis demand to implement the Zinni plan to the letter, "not because we believe it would lead to cease-fire, but to show the incompetence of Arafat and strengthen our claim for his removal," said the defense official.

The military expects a "chaotic period" after Arafat's ouster. In its view, Israel should nurture a new Palestinian leadership, and strengthen its hold over the territories with generous political offerings and economic temptations, going as far as reopening the Israeli labor market to Palestinian workers. But Ben Eliezer rejects this scenario, at least for now. Earlier this week, he pledged to do everything in his power to keep Arafat in place, asserting that his expulsion would be worse for Israel. His underlings, however, believe that Ben Eliezer's opposition is only temporary. "And what if the next attack kills 100 Israelis? Do you really think that we would leave Arafat in power?" asks a defense official, rhetorically. He knows his boss. Three weeks ago, Ben Eliezer opposed the idea of harming Barghouthi, calling him "part of a future Palestinian leadership." The future Palestinian leader is now under arrest, with no protest from the defense minister.

Sharon believes that America's foremost interest In the Middle East is an Iraqi regime change, and its deeper involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena is meant to build Arab support for the next stage of Bush's war against terrorism, and not as a sincere exercise in peacemaking. In other words, the Americans are trying to save Arafat from Israel, in order to pave their way to Baghdad. In Sharon's view, Arafat shares the same interests with Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime. All of them want to prevent an American operation in Iraq. Saddam fears for his job, while Arafat and the Ayatollahs are afraid to become the next American targets. Therefore, they are trying to destabilize the region. "Iraq supports the Palestinian terror, just as Arafat supported Saddam in 1991," Sharon told Powell. An Israeli defense official told me: "The Americans are wrong. Arafat is the obstacle to their Iraq plans, because he's an obstacle for stability."

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Always the master tactician, Sharon pulled the ultimate political trick. He used his fiercest domestic rival, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to pass the same message to Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Both met Netanyahu last Thursday, just as Powell was on his way to Jerusalem. The once and perhaps future Israeli leader told them: "Do what you want in Iraq, and don't wait for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement." A Sharon confidant who toured the power corridors in Washington last week returned home convinced that only the State Department sees Arafat as a possible partner for an agreement. Officials at the Pentagon and the White House see no chance for a deal with Arafat, but have no idea about an alternative, an example of a "can't do with him and can't do without him" situation. All seem to agree that after Saddam is out, the chances for regional peacemaking will grow.

But beneath this grand strategy lies an acute problem: Who will take responsibility for security and preventing terror in the Palestinian cities, if and when the IDF withdraws? The official Israeli position proposes a reconstruction of the Oslo model, with Arafat held accountable for any terror attack, and some form of resurrected Palestinian security force as the responsible authority (and, needless to say, the eventual culprit). The Americans are skeptical. According to sources close to Powell's entourage, they are starting to lean toward the new panacea, an international observer force, to replace the Israelis until the Palestinian Authority is back. The logic is that both sides are too weak and lack the trust to take responsibility and care for security on their own. Sharon opposes the idea of "internationalizing" the process, fearing an imposed political solution. He is ready only for a small group of American "monitors" of the cease-fire. Which inevitably promises another round of diplomatic skirmishes.

But the American team, desperate as it is for some success, clearly has not given up. On Monday, three American officials -- David Sutterfield and Aron Miller of the State Department and Flint Leverett of the National Security Council -- traveled to the oasis town of Jericho to discuss possible ways out of the mess with three of Arafat's lieutenants, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Arafat economic advisor and confidant Mohammed Rashid. The Americans proposed three "baskets" of initiatives to be discussed: security measures, political moves and economic reconstruction efforts. As a down payment, they told the Palestinians that Powell would be satisfied with a cease-fire declaration by Arafat, which could help him in pressing Sharon to withdraw. There's no reason to be optimistic about this proposal either, but it's a sign that the Powell team hasn't caved to the Sharon line on Arafat, and isn't likely to anytime soon.


Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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