Posted on November 26, 2001 in Washington Watch

Israel’s early responses to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s long awaited Middle East policy speech shows just how difficult it will be to revive peacemaking efforts.

Powell’s speech was, as promised, a statement of the US vision of a comprehensive peace. It contained all of the elements: Israel’s security and recognition; an independent and viable Palestinian state; regional peace agreements; and a broader Middle East peace that promises a more progressive future for all of the region’s peoples.

While containing no surprising breakthroughs, the “vision speech” did reflect the evolving rhetoric in U.S. policy discussions of Palestinian concerns. The U.S. demands that Israel’s “occupation must end”, and that “settlement activity must stop” and the recognition of the Palestinian right to “self-determination” and a state-all must be seen as positive developments. (I can recall being threatened with political ostracism for using similar language just thirteen years ago.)

Both Israeli and Arab commentators have focused on the absence of mechanisms and timetables in the speech. While Israelis have proclaimed this a victory for their side, Arabs have seen it as a fundamental weakness in Powell’s effort. But, both views may be premature.

These process-related questions were finessed by the Secretary, partly to avoid an immediate rejection of this new Bush Administration effort at peacemaking. The finesse took two forms.

On the one hand, Powell insisted that his speech was a vision, not a process plan. The process, he noted, already exists in the form of the report and recommendations made by the commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. The plan is grounded in the principles and formulas already agreed to by both Israelis and Palestinians at Madrid and Oslo.

Implementation of the Mitchell proposal to move the parties back to negotiations was frustrated by Israel’s insistence that it would not entertain any discussions with Palestinians until after seven days of absolute peace and six weeks of a “cooling-off period”. U.S. acceptance of this Israeli demand, in effect, froze the process and condemned the parties to continuing conflict.

Instead of directly challenging this Israeli demand, which sources say Powell now believes that the U.S. was wrong to have accepted, Powell finessed the matter by dispatching retired General Anthony Zinni to the Middle East to press the parties to move quickly to establish a cease-fire and restart negotiations without preconditions.

Zinni’s appointment is both intriguing and important for several reasons. He is tough and intelligent marine general who is eminently capable of forcing tough decisions. Zinni knows the region, having served as U.S. Commander-in-Chief of the Central Command. His first public address after leaving this post was a wide ranging discussion of Middle East issues in which the General displayed a deep understanding of both U.S. interests and Arab concerns.

Zinni’s role is interesting for another reason. Having established close working relationships with major Arab states from Egypt to the Gulf, he brings a needed shift in perspective to the Middle East peacemaking effort. Previous Middle East envoys saw the region through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Zinni will see that conflict through the prism of U.S. interests and involvement in the broader region.

Finally and most critically, Zinni is a senior figure who has the trust and respect of both the Secretary of State and the President. If any one can do the heavy lifting required to translate Powell’s vision into a real process, it is the General.

As I noted at the outset, Zinni will have his work cut out for him. It is true, as Powell observed, that the violence which has become chronic and endemic will have to be stopped for peacemaking to start. More problematic, however, than winding down violence will be addressing Israel’s intransigence. And, in this regard, Israel’s early responses to Powell’s speech makes clear just how difficult this will be.

Even before the speech was given, in an effort to preempt it, Israel’s friends in the U.S. Senate sent a strong message to President Bush warning him not to pressure Israel. Signed by 89 of the 100 U.S. Senators, the letter praised Bush for not meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and insisted that the Administration take no steps to restrain Israel from striking out at Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon himself also acted before the Powell speech, reaffirming his insistence that no discussions with Palestinians could take place until they meet his condition of seven days of absolute calm and a six week “cooling-off period”. The day after Powell’s speech, Sharon once again responded with two actions sure to provoke Palestinian outrage. He demolished 18 Palestinian homes in Gaza and announced new settlement construction in the heart of Hebron.

Sharon, it appears, has not surrendered his long-term quest to destroy the Palestinian national movement. His vision of a Palestinian “state” is a series of semi-autonomous reservations surrounded by Israeli-controlled territories. He still seeks to destroy the Palestinian Authority and replace it with local leaders who will be amenable to accepting an Israeli vision of peace.

The struggle that will now ensue in the wake of Powell’s speech will be between competing visions of the future. What is important to recognize is that the U.S. and Palestinian visions have now converged, at least in their general outlines. The odd man out is the vision of the Likud government in Israel

Arabs, therefore, should respond to Powell’s speech with a complementary vision statement of their own. This statement should both enlarge upon Powell’s speech and provide both the details it lacks and the steps required to achieve a comprehensive peace.

It would be imperative for an Arab vision statement to address Israeli public opinion, in an effort to wean more Israelis away from extremist solutions proposed by their current leadership. An Arab vision statement should make clear how Arabs see the future of the region, their future relationship with Israel and the concrete steps all sides will need to take to move the region from where it is to a comprehensive peace agreement.

It is hard to be an optimist after all of the disappointments and the pain of the past decade. But Secretary Powell’s initiative requires that all of us take a new look at the possibility of challenging and changing the status quo.

Violence has run its course. Israel’s must know that they cannot impose their will and break the back of the Palestinian desire to live as a free and independent people. At the same time, it should also be painfully clear that the Israelis will not be forced to end their occupation by bombings and shootings, or even stones.

Powell has offered a promising new start and General Zinni possesses the energy and skill to move this initiative forward. Prime Minister Sharon has rejected this effort in characteristic style. The field is, therefore, open for Arabs to take the high ground with a positive and visionary Arab response that can work to transform both U.S. and Israeli public opinion. It can isolate extremists and pave the way for changes that may make a renewed peace process a possibility.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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