Powell can't fail, but can he succeed?

Thursday, April 11, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- It is relatively easy to describe the parameters of a future final resolution to the horrific Israel-Palestine conflict. At the end of the day, there will be something in between the 2000 Ehud Barak (and, later, Bill Clinton) proposal and the current Saudi proposal. While that eventual outcome is predictable, it is virtually impossible to see how to get from here to there.

The two principals whose agreement is required to achieve a settlement are untrustworthy, antagonistic and incapable of finding a common ground. Yasser Arafat ranks at the head of any class of either 20th or 21st century prevaricators. Ariel Sharon himself would be high on a list of implacable combatants. It is hard to imagine Arafat and Sharon in the same room. It is impossible to see them together on the White House lawn for a photo-op handshake with President Bush.

Terrorism, it is said, should not be rewarded. This is a noble principle often honored in the breach. Some Caribbean and African nations have a pedigree rich in terrorism. Jomo Kenyatta was depicted as one of the world's most dangerous butchers before he blossomed into a statesman when Kenya gained independence from Britain. The creation of both India and Pakistan was beset with terrorism on a massive scale. China's ruling party has a terrorist past. The United States has experienced its share of terrorism in the battle over civil rights. Two of Israel's prime ministers, Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, had terrorist acts on their pre-1948 resumes. There is an endless list of other examples.

Middle East terrorism has evolved into a way of life that, for now, prevents a speedy negotiated eradication. To say that terrorists are simply fanatics beyond the pale of civilization is to ignore how pervasive terror has become as part of Islamic politics. Many Arab governments denounce terrorism as an awful act but tacitly accept it as a political tool in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflagration.

Just as we expect that U.S. relations with Cuba will be normalized after the passing of Fidel Castro, we want to believe that, down the line, there will be a Palestinian Anwar Sadat and another Israeli Yitzhak Rabin. This does not seem to be in the cards in the foreseeable future with an almost certainly harder-than-hard-liner replacing Arafat. If Sharon falters, the equally if not more bellicose Bibi Netanyahu is waiting in the wings.

There is a distinct ambiguity in current American policy on the Middle East. President Bush is sympathetic to Sharon's military advance into Palestinian territory as retaliation against terrorists (and against a Palestinian leadership that lied to America about its links to Iran, among many other topics). At the same time, the president agrees to the State Department's decision to vote with the rest of the world in the United Nations to demand Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territory.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is caught between Clintonian negotiation and hard-line anti-terrorist confrontation. Bush has no fix for the current crisis other than sending Powell into the quagmire. Bush will not meet or shake hands with Arafat, but Anthony Zinni, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, always similes warmly on camera with Arafat. Powell will have to shake Arafat's hand, but only with a somber face.

The various leaders who Powell will meet with before arriving in Israel will give him the same advice that Vice President Cheney received a couple of weeks ago: Rein in Sharon, or face disaster on the ground, further deterioration of the U.S.-Arab relationship, diminution of Arab cooperation with our war on terrorism and implacable opposition to any U.S. attack on Iraq. The Powell mission cannot fail, but it cannot succeed in achieving any enduring eradication of Middle East hate. Until Sept. 11, the goal of America's Middle East policy was to protect Israel. Now our goal is to protect both Israel and the United States.

The day will come in the century when a U.S.-Arab solution if proffered to Israel. There is no prominent Israeli or Palestinian public figure willing to accept the prospective plan. Guaranteed borders will be policed by an American military presence that, in numbers and duration, will equal our experience on the Korean peninsula. The United States will bankroll the Palestinian regime as we have done with Egypt since its 1979 agreement with Israel and Israel's subsequent withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

It will be a Pax Americana, and it is light years away.

Thomas F. Eagleton is a lawyer and a former U.S. senator from Missouri.

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