Fresh pressure placed on Israel, Palestinians

Need to mount war on terror forces shifts in U.S. foreign policy

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 28, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - One of Colin L. Powell's urgent tasks after the Sept. 11 attacks was to demand help from Israel - not to join a war on terrorism, but to seek a truce with Yasser Arafat, the man Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likens to Osama bin Laden.

This pressure from the U.S. secretary of state jarred Israelis, who have been repeated victims of terror and see themselves as front-line fighters against the scourge. Rather than being cast as part of the solution, they were left to infer that because of their conflict with the Palestinians, they were part of the problem.

But Powell clearly had heard the warning from leaders in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan, whom he enlisted to help root out and destroy bin Laden's international network:

Unless the United States was seen to be involved in trying to quiet Israeli-Palestinian fighting, he would have trouble building and holding together his anti-terror coalition.

Philip C. Wilcox, a former U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism, goes further, arguing that if the United States wants Arab and Muslim help, it needs to "reappraise" its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and toward Iraq.

The half-century Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the constant undercurrents beneath Middle East crises that frequently embroil the United States. In 1991, for instance, it complicated the first Bush administration's effort to build a coalition of Arab states against Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The route to a solution - an exchange of land occupied by Israel for a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians - has been the stated policy of several U.S. administrations.

But every time the United States tries to end the conflict once and for all, it gets trapped in the thicket of deeply emotional Israeli-Palestinian disputes and ends up with a stalemate. Until Sept. 11, the Bush administration had been reluctant to follow the strenuous but futile efforts of President Bill Clinton in trying to broker a final deal.

"Failure is failure," Powell said in one published interview.

Clinton's Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, has publicly expressed doubts that Arafat is capable of making the necessary concessions for a final peace. Even those who saw valid reasons for Arafat's rejection of Israel's offer at the Camp David summit in July 2000 now believe that the gaps between the Palestinians and the Sharon government are so wide as to be unbridgeable.

And despite a rising body count among Palestinians and Israelis and mounting frustration in the Arab street, the administration's hands-off policy appeared to carry little cost for the United States. Predictions of a spillover into a wider war failed to materialize.

But the sudden need to mount an international war on terrorism has forced a number of shifts in U.S. foreign policy - and not least in the Middle East. After Sept. 11, Powell and other U.S. officials immediately applied strong pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to arrange a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that would lead to a halt in the fighting.

The Americans had a new argument to use: Arafat, they said, doesn't want to repeat the calamitous mistake he made in 1991, when he sided with Saddam Hussein and became a pariah figure in the West. Powell told both sides: "The world is looking at you differently now."

Arafat rushed to show that he wanted to cooperate with the United States. He was so embarrassed by demonstrations of Palestinian joy at the attacks on the United States that his security forces threatened journalists who filmed them.

"Arafat feels he's in a corner," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "He's been trying very hard to get to these talks to show he can be a partner."

Sharon initially responded that if Arafat was so keen on international legitimacy, he should demonstrate it by enforcing a halt to attacks on Israelis. He insisted on 48 hours of quiet before allowing the meeting.

But Powell's almost-daily phone calls worked. While shooting continues in the occupied territories, there have been no Palestinian attacks that caused large-scale Israeli casualties since Sept. 11. Sharon relented and allowed Peres to meet Arafat on Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, where the two men agreed to a series of confidence-building measures.

To some analysts, this shows what can happen when the United States gets involved.

"When we engage seriously, people take us seriously," said Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Israel.

The administration kept up the pressure yesterday, demanding that Israel halt the demolition of Palestinian homes and incursions by its army into Palestinian-controlled areas. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also called on the Palestinians to preempt violence by arresting those planning and conducting acts of terror.

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