May 7, 2002
The wags say that a second marriage represents the triumph of hope over experience (though I can attest that sometimes it works). So what would you call the umpteenth effort by outside powers to impose a settlement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute through a combination of nice talk and veiled threats?
Nonetheless, the administration says, the United States will once again try to broker a Middle East peace with a conference. The key is that this is supposed to be a "ministerial-level" conference which means the issue of whether Arafat and Sharon would be at the same table can be finessed and a lot more outsiders will be invited. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the European Union are supposed to show up to schmooze and wring hands.
The biggest new factor, however, appears to be the new activism of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. Chris Suellentrop had an interesting piece as an "assessment" on Friday's Slate.com, on the emergence of Abdullah, at the ripe old age of 78, as something of an international player.
Suellentrop notes that Abdullah, since becoming de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in 1995 when King Fahd had a stroke, has undertaken some interesting policy steps. He appointed a Sunni ambassador to Iran and has played footsie with that regime, and has taken a few steps to try to reduce corruption and malfeasance in the widely extended Saudi royal family. At the same time he has undoubtedly at least been aware of and has probable encouraged support for various Islamic radical guerrillas around the world.
The cynical among us might note that as the scion of a Texas oil family, George Bush is probably more comfortable speaking to Saudis than most Americans might be. Texas oilmen long ago not only resigned themselves to dealing with a regime where women are kept under male thumbs, most dissent is repressed cruelly and the bosses rule by hereditary right and sheer power, one could suspect that they kind of admire such a system. Admire or not, however, they certainly have experience dealing with those guys.
By comparison, reasonably sincere conservatives like Rich Lowry at National Review (and I think he's reasonably sincere though I recognize some might disagree) have been bashing the Saudi regime fairly steadily since 9/11. Now their maximum leader seems to be getting in bed with the avatars of evil. It's just too delicious.
Whether Abdullah is sincere in wanting to see some resolution to Middle East crises before he dies or is just trying to keep domestic discontent with his corrupt regime under control and I claim no special insight he and Colin Powell and George Bush and all the other would-be healers will be operating in a context. The problem can't be approached as if there were a clean slate.
There seemed to be a bit of release last week. Emotions from anger to joy ran high in Ramallah Wednesday night as Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat emerged from an isolation that had lasted since early December in the Palestinian headquarters compound in Ramallah. But it is more than likely that Mr. Arafat's newfound freedom changes nothing essential in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
Whether the United States should have inserted itself into the conflict to the extent of brokering an agreement that led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops besieging the Ramallah compound in exchange for six Palestinians wanted by Israel for alleged crimes being confined under U.S.-British control is even more dubious.
The big picture, as I suggested a few weeks ago and as some news reports are beginning to acknowledge, is that the United States (although there are reports of divisions within the administration) desperately wants to attack Iraq and oust that country's dictator, Saddam Hussein, from power as part of its overall war on terrorism.
It quickly became clear, however, as Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled through the region recently, that "moderate" Arab states, and especially Saudi Arabia, were demanding a more active US role in trying to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute which would mean more US pressure on and less support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as part of the price for supporting (or not opposing) an attack on Iraq.
So President Bush began calling for more Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and over the weekend offered the idea of exchanging the Palestinians wanted by Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from Ramallah. If various news reports are reliable (and who can be sure?) the implicit deal seems to be that the US will pressure Sharon and the Israelis and the Saudis will pressure Arafat and the Palestinians.
Whether this small bow toward a diplomatic approach will yield even a temporary cease-fire is questionable. Yasser Arafat emerged from his confinement angry and provocative, calling the Israelis "terrorists, Nazis and racists." Later he talked of peace, but it was obviously not foremost in his mind. The last few days have not seen a notable reduction in expression of mutual hostility and dislike.
Whether US willingness to involve itself more closely in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute will lead to support from regimes like Saudi Arabia or Egypt for a US attack on Saddam Hussein is also questionable. Arab leaders' attitudes toward attacking Saddam range from lukewarm to hostile.
The United States, of course, might well be able to undertake an attack on Iraq alone, but it obviously wants at least lip-service support, and perhaps permission to put bases, stockpiles and other military facilities in place, from other Arab governments.
If the price of "moderate" Arab support is something resembling a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the prospects are dubious. The roots of that conflict are deep and there are few signs of either war-weariness or second thoughts on either side.
Thus the small success if that is what it is of ending the siege of Ramallah may do little to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "If anything, both sides seem to have become more radicalized over the past several months," Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute told me last week.
Prospects for peace based on anything resembling mutual respect might be less promising than in 2000, when former President Clinton tried so desperately to "force" an agreement and had the effort blow up in his face.
Mr. Carpenter believes that Yasser Arafat, after a period of strong support from Palestinians during his confinement, will have to rebuild not only the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure but his own standing. Considering the growing power of more militant factions, this is likely to translate into anti-Israeli intransigence.
Meanwhile Mr. Sharon is likely to assess the US domestic political scene noting non-binding resolutions in both houses of Congress and conclude that his country's $3 billion aid package is not in serious jeopardy if he continues to conduct an "aggressive defense" especially if there are more Palestinian suicide bombings.
To broker an agreement the United States will have to convince the opposing sides that it is acting in their interests. Considering how divergent their interests are just now, this will be difficult to impossible. A ministerial-level meeting would undoubtedly get lots of media coverage and provide a find platform for various blowhards, but the prospects for real progress toward peace seem minuscule.
I would love to be wrong in this assessment. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing evidence emerge in the next few weeks or months that Israelis and Palestinians have become war-weary enough to begin talking and negotiating rather than using bombs and bullets. But events of the last few months have done little to instill or increase confidence in diplomacy on either side.
For all its military and economic might, the United States can do little to bring about conditions conducive to real peace in the Middle East. Realistic statesmen as President Bush seemed to be at the beginning of his term acknowledge that the combatants must want peace for a settlement to be genuine.
As of now the US and other outsiders seem to want an agreement, for reasons of their own, much more than the combatants do. This is almost always a bad sign. Certainly it does not augur well for diplomatic success.
I hope Israelis and Palestinians prove me wrong. And I also entertain a certain hope that the United States emerges from its ill-advised venture in peace processing less damaged than is likely. But experience is almost certainly the better teacher.
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