Unclear and incredible

America in the Middle East

April 14, 2002|By R.S. Zaharna

WASHINGTON - The United States clearly is turning up the volume with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Middle East. But the problem is not one of amplification. Rather, it is one of credibility and clarity.

Until America finds its voice in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, it is unlikely that it will be heard in the Arab world.

Since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, America's central message has been "stop the violence," a key to its longstanding desire for peace and stability in the Middle East.

Opinion polls among both Palestinians and Israelis show a strong and consistent desire for peace. Even more compelling, both people want peace for the same reason: a better life for their children.

As for the U.S. role in trying to broker peace, the problem is not that America's message lacks merit but that there is a disconnect between what it says and does. As the sole superpower, America's words and actions are monitored closely by all countries. When it says it is against violence and then appears to condone violence, it suffers a credibility problem.

Whether it is Palestinian or Israeli violence, the result is the same - people are traumatized, hurt and killed. More than 400 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians have died during more than 18 months of violence. With three times as many Palestinian deaths, it defies logic for President Bush to highlight Palestinian violence as the only violence worth condemning in this two-sided conflict.

The high Palestinian death toll is indicative of Israeli military superiority, not an absence of Israeli violence. As former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski noted recently, the failure to see the victims of the other side is symptomatic of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The failure of the Bush administration to see the violence of both sides is equally symptomatic.

America's "stop the violence" message has been further eroded by a lack of clarity and political courage. The clarity that the United States has been demanding of Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders to stop the violence has been missing from Mr. Bush's own message.

Terrorism - deliberate attacks against civilians - is condemned in every religious scripture. This foundation is a powerful argument against such acts. In contrast, resistance against oppression, even armed resistance, is an internationally recognized right.

For U.S. officials to call Israeli military actions defensive and label all armed Palestinian acts irrational misses the point. The intifada is not without context or meaning; it represents Israeli economic, political and military control of a people who will no longer tolerate it.

Hence, the repeated American demands for Mr. Arafat to "stop the violence" is equated in the Arab world with an American call on the Palestinian leader to stop the uprising of his people against the Israeli occupation. No Palestinian leader, indeed no Arab leader, can demand this and remain in power. If the world's superpower cannot make the distinction between terrorism and resistance, it is unlikely that a beleaguered leader under siege can, either.

By failing to distinguish between resistance and terrorism, and instead lumping them together under the rubric of mindless violence, America has blurred what would otherwise be a powerful and persuasive message. But America must make the distinction if its larger war on terrorism is to have any credibility and clarity.

Since Sept. 11, countries around the world have jumped on the war-on-terrorism bandwagon, Israel included. Mr. Sharon has likened Mr. Arafat to Osama bin Laden and the Palestinians to the Taliban. Every time Israeli spokespeople make this analogy, America's war on terrorism is questioned.

If the United States is supporting Israel's efforts to subdue a disenfranchised people in the name of terrorism, one could logically conclude that perhaps the U.S. war on terrorism is also an effort to silence other oppressed people. The power of Israel's analogy is thus backfiring on U.S. interests.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Powell's words will take on particular significance for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy. The United States is losing its voice in the Middle East, not because of the validity of what the United States has to say, but because its message has been diluted and its credibility questioned.

R.S. Zaharna is an assistant professor of public communication at American University in Washington and a Middle East analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank. She is also a member of the Dialog Group of Palestinian-American and Jewish-American women seeking to promote understanding in the Middle East conflict.

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