Posted on April 01, 2002 in Washington Watch

It has been an achingly frustrating week of highs and lows in the search for Middle East peace. The high point, of course, was the Arab League Summit’s endorsement of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s simple but eloquent peace initiative.

Despite some stumbling and a few miscues, the summit story played out well in the U.S. press. The front page headlines focused correctly on the accomplishment of the summit: “Arabs Issue Call for Peace”.

The tragedy, of course, is that on the very day the papers carried those headlines, the summit story was drowned out by the terrorist bombing in Netanya. That act, both morally evil and politically stupid, only served to set in motion the terrible events of the weekend.

If the Passover bombing was Hamas’ response to the Arab summit, it provided Israeli Prime Minister Sharon with an opportunity to issue a response of his own.
In fact, Hamas, as is oftentimes the case, did Sharon a favor. With U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni’s mission making some headway and the Israeli press actively debating the pros and cons of an Arab initiative for Israel to end its occupation and live in peace, Sharon was in an uncomfortable position.

The horror of the Netanya bombing stopped the Israeli debate, frustrated the Zinni mission and diverted world attention from the occupation and the Arab peace initiative. Sharon could now respond as he had wanted to all along.
The assault on Ramallah and the destruction and occupation of Yasir Arafat’s presidential compound is only the beginning of an all out Israeli move against the Palestinian Authority.

As the world watched, the Israelis systematically devastated the seat of President Arafat’s government. With the situation spiraling out of control, all one could do was wait and see if the U.S. would use any of its leverage to restrain the Israeli forces. For hours both the White House and State Department refused to comment, noting that the President’s National Security team was fashioning a response. We waited with a shred of hope that the Administration would issue a clear condemnation of the Israeli attacks. When it finally came, it was disturbingly inadequate.

Telling President Arafat that “he must do more” to crack down on terrorists, when his office was under siege, his phone lines and electricity were cut out, and his aides were being arrested, was infuriating and insulting. This was compounded by the Administration’s apparent “green light” to Israel–“we understand Israel’s need to respond…and [their] right to decide what actions best serve the interests of the Israeli people…[but] we call on Prime Minister Sharon to carefully consider the consequences”.

The long awaited was response was no response at all. The fate of President Arafat and the Palestinian people has now been left up to the internal Israeli government debate over the “consequences” of how far they should go. And one can find little comfort in the fact that the sides in that debate are being defined by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (whose government committed the Qana’a massacre) and Sharon (the architect of the Beirut massacres of 1982).

Without external restraint, the Israelis will most probably continue to invade Palestinian areas, taking prisoners and destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian self-governance. It is unclear how far they will go or what their ultimate strategy is. Do they intend to return the territories to pre-Oslo total occupation? Or something worse? What is clear is that this military adventure will only provoke more violence and the cycle of bloodshed will continue until an external restraining force intervenes.

Calls from some quarters for the Arabs to reconvene their summit and to cancel their endorsement of the Abdullah initiative are an unwise response to Sharon’s brutality. If anything, collective Arab leadership ought to reassert their vision and make it vocally clear to the U.S. that while they have committed the Arab world to peace, the Israeli government’s clear rejection of that initiative threatens not only peace but U.S. interests and prestige in the broader region.

At the same time, as difficult as it may be for some to rise above their anger and their pain in the face of the terrible brutality of the Israeli military occupation, it is incumbent on Arab leadership to support President Arafat’s call for an end to the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. These continued attacks, as I have repeatedly stated, are morally evil and politically stupid.

Killing innocent human beings is always wrong. These actions cannot be justified by stating that they are in reaction to equally reprehensible Israeli acts of brutality. In fact, they only set the stage for the next Israeli murderous response, and so on. And look at what these hideous acts of terror did this time. They drowned out the significant and far-reaching initiative passed by the Arab summit and they provided the Sharon government with the pretext he sought to destroy the entirety of Palestinian rule and escape from the peace process.

It may be hard to see the vision of peace proposed by the Arab summit through the clouds of despair currently choking the Holy Land. And it may be hard to stifle the feelings of anger at the now 35-year old occupation. But leadership is need to do just that.

Violence is the language Sharon speaks best and the language to which he best responds. Playing his game will only bring more devastation.

Firm and commanding Arab leadership must speak over the head of Sharon to the U.S., to the people of Israel, and to the beleaguered and long-suffering people of the occupied lands. The occupation and the violence must end and the Palestinian Authority must be defended or the consequences to the U.S. and the region may be fatal.

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