Posted on March 18, 2002 in Washington Watch

Last week, I read two diametrically opposed editorials in the Arab press, both commenting on the U.N. Security Council’s passage of the U.S.-supported Resolution 1397.

One of these editorials enthusiastically endorsed the event terming it “historic” and noting that it “presents an unprecedented opportunity for achieving peace in the Middle East.” The editorial went on to urge the Palestinians and the Arabs, in general, to unify behind the principles of peace and normalization in order to make it clear that the current leadership in Israel is the main reason for the continuing conflict.

The opposing editorial identified U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 as part of a larger U.S. effort to calm Arab public opinion in order to lay the groundwork for an assault against Iraq. This editorial urged the Palestinian and Arab leadership to withhold cooperation from all of the U.S.’ regional efforts, including the current Zinni mission.

Let me note from the outset that I agree with elements of both editorials.

The observation of the second piece may very well be correct. It may be true, as some Arab papers have speculated, that the sudden U.S. interest in reengagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not prompted by concern with the sufferings of the Palestinian people. It appears that U.S. interest was prompted by another concern. Vice President Richard Cheney’s mission to the Middle East, ostensibly to mobilize support for U.S. efforts against Iraq, was in danger of being derailed by Arab anger at Israel’s brutal tactics. It may very well be true that U.S. policy planners realized the need to tamp down the Israel assaults and calm down the overall conflict in order to allow Cheney’s mission to proceed.

Adding fuel to the fire of those who might question the U.S. intentions has been the actual timidity of the U.S. response.

First, Secretary of State Colin Powell simply questioned whether or not Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon had examined whether his tactics against the Palestinians were working. Then President Bush described the Israeli assaults as “not helpful”. These two almost innocuous comments, however, were enough to spur the ­­New York Times to editorialize against Sharon and generate other headlines like “Bush Rips Sharon”. They also landed me an invitation to debate a congressman on CNN. Our topic: “Has the Bush Administration gone too far in pressing Israel?” Strange indeed!

While U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 does give formal recognition to a fact already universally recognized-that a final Middle East peace will include a Palestinian state-critics may be right in noting that it does little else. As the Syrian representative to the Security Council correctly noted, Resolution 1397 “did not take into account any Arab concerns”. It ignores the Israeli occupation and the death and destruction being meted out by Israeli occupation forces. As a result of these concerns, the Syrian representative abstained from voting on the resolution.

Meanwhile, if press reports are true, General Zinni has come to the region armed only with a U.S. proposal, once vetoed by Israel, to place a few dozen monitors in the West Bank and Gaza to do nothing more than report on future ceasefire violations. This proposal, it may be recalled, was the final watered-down version of the original Palestinian request to have an international peacekeeping force stationed in the occupied lands to provide both protection and security for the Palestinians and Israelis.

And so, as I have noted, it may well be true that the observations of the second editorial written are correct-a timid but calibrated U.S. response to Israel’s assault designed only to calm Arab anger and create a less violent status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. But even with that, the conclusion offered, “to withhold support” is counterproductive and will do nothing to ease the suffering of the Palestinians or advance the cause of a just and lasting peace.

Because obstructionism and abstentionism are never winning strategies and because the Palestinian struggle will never be won militarily, I find the tactics suggested by the first editorial to be far more supportable.

In fact, the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 provides Palestinians with the opportunity to throw back at the U.S. their oft repeated mantra “words are fine, but it’s actions that count”. Passing Resolution 1397 was easy, making it real will be the real test of leadership. To accomplish that will take more than a handful of monitors and mild rebukes.

What the first of these two editorials also establishes is that there is a positive and constructive role for Arab leadership to play at this stage. What is needed is a strategy designed to win the political and diplomatic battle. A victory on this front can isolate Sharon and his hardline party, transform the political landscape in Israel and make a renewed and real peace process possible.

That strategy, of course, has, at its core, what has come to be termed as the “Abdullah initiative”. Even though the initiative has not been fully developed and publicly launched, it has already shown real promise. In Israel, it has generated a lively and quite striking discussion. Just three examples of this internal Israeli debate will suffice to demonstrate its importance and the potential of the initiative.

First, an observation from one of Israel’s leading political analysts, Aluf Benn. He writes:

    The greatest danger for Sharon is that the Israeli left will recover from the Camp David fiasco, will unite around the Saudi initiative, and will present a political and diplomatic alternative that appeals to the U.S. Administration…The internal pressure will increase if the initiative receives the backing of the Arab League at the end of the month, even in a softened version, which will push Israel into the role of rejectionist.

An editorial in Ha’aretz noted:

    Sharon is now painting a false portrait of an existential war of ‘no alternative’ in which the one and only goal is to survive. That is deception. It is not the existence of Israel that is at stake, but the existence of the settlements, which Sharon has fostered and nurtured for a generation.

And finally, the Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, building on this issue of the settlements and their relationship to the Abdullah initiative, wrote a striking editorial in Maariv:

    If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the heart of the dispute between the Arab countries and us, its total solution is the heart of a total settlement between the Arab countries and us. All the settlements for all the peace. All the settlements means dismantling all the settlements, with great national pain and a zero option. All the peace means an open borders agreement between all our surroundings and us. All the peace and all the settlements together means Israel’s rescue from degradation, from the end of democracy, from the transfer and a discriminatory state. It’s not a bad offer at a good price. We must adopt it before we all become orphans.

Quite simply, a serious debate has begun-in the U.S. and in Israel. Prompting it have been frustration over the continuing violence, Sharon’s overreaction and brutal response to the violence, and the still-infant Abdullah initiative.

The Arabs’ path forward is clear-to pocket U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 as a victory and to build on the political success won so far by the Abdullah initiative. Arabs can and should remain wary of any aspects of the war on terror that threaten to create regional instability. They should remain focused on solving the region’s most pressing issue-the question of Palestine. In this effort, they have tremendous power and resources: the strong commitment of their people, and near universal good will of the international community. The targets to change are U.S. policy and the Israeli government.

These objectives can best be accomplished by serious political engagement. The second editorial got it wrong. The first editorial was right.

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