by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 5, 2002
On Native Ground
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE FROM BUSH ON MIDEAST?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- So President Bush has finally come to the conclusion that its time to get fully and forcefully involved in the Middle East peace process. What took him so long?
Why did it take the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis to get the Bush administration to take the situation seriously? Why did President Bush wait until things went dangerously out of controlenough to threaten the stability of the whole region? Maybe it's because the Bush team never truly realized how important the peace process was until now because it was too busy denigrating President Clinton's work.
When the Bush administration took office, it was quick to put the brakes on many of the Clinton administration's foreign policy initiatives. They had nothing but scorn for President Clinton's attempts to broker a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
President Bush apparently wanted nothing to do with resuming the peace process. Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer gave the game away in a comment he made a few weeks ago: "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted." Though Fleischer ended up backtracking from the ludicrous idea that the peace negotiations during the Clinton years are the cause for the current chaos, you can't help but think that this is what President Bush and his team really believes. Better to do nothing than to risk as much political capital as President Clinton did in seeking peace through diplomacy.
Even after Sept. 11, when the reality of international terrorism hit home in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the Bush team failed to see the link between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the intense Arab hatred of the U.S. that spawned the Sept. 11 attacks. It was far easier to bomb Afghanistan than to step in and bring Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat back to the bargaining table.
The carnage of the past few weeks in Israel and the West Bank stand as testimony to the failure of the Bush administration to restart the peace process. At a time when it's critical to have savvy leadership, all we seem to get from President Bush is inconsistency and coherence. The cost of this fecklessness is a bloodbath without end and without victors.
Before the U.S. starts its invasion of Iraq -- a campaign which appears will be conveniently timed to coincide with this fall's congressional elections -- it has to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only the U.S. can grab Sharon and Arafat by the scruffs of their necks, order them to cease fire and sit them down together to talk peace. The rest of the world knows this and is appalled that it hasn't happened already. When the violence hit a fever pitch during the Passover-Easter weekend, what was President Bush doing? He was doing yard work at his Texas ranch while dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to do the talking for him. When he got back to Washington, the president continued the contradictory line of supporting Israel's right to defend itself from terrorism while trying to not call Arafat a terrorist. It took more than a week for him tofinally urge an end to the fighting.
Powell -- seemingly the only person on the Bush team with the knowledge and expertise on how the Middle East works, not to mention the respect of all parties -- hasn't been greatly involved in the diplomatic efforts until now. Some say the reason why is that he's too busy trying to keep Bush from needlessly going off to war with Iraq. The war hawks in the Bush administration are apparently too blinded by the prospect of blowing up Saddam Hussein to see that there are bigger problems in the Middle East to solve first.
Since Sept. 11, the U.S. has bounced the rubble in Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and nearly all of the al-Qaida leadership have fled to fight another day and Afghanistan is poised to have yet another civil war. Saudi Arabia, the nation that supplied much of the money and muscle behind Islamic terrorism, has been left unscathed because of our need for their oil. Meanwhile, the U.S. is creating new enemies and new battlefields in a "war on terrorism" that seems more calculated to keep Republicans in power and make defense contractors rich than to bring peace and security to the world.
In this context, the Bush administration has seen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a sideshow, rather than the main event. It walked away from the diplomatic process, believing that it wasn't that important -- especially if active diplomacy means ticking off the hard right faction of the GOP that unconditionally supports anything Israel does. It may already be too late, but it's time to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East. Israel has been wrong in its occupation of the West Bank, its random destruction of Palestinian homes, its policy of assassination of Palestinian leaders and its blockade of Palestiniancities. The Palestinians have been wrong in its terror bombing campaign,the only effective weapon they have against one of the world's mostpowerful armies.
There is only one way to end this. Israel must withdraw from the territories it captured in the 1967 and 1973 wars, as called for in UN Resolutions 242 and 338. It must stop building settlements in the occupied territories and be prepared to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians must end the terror campaign and accept the right of Israel to exist. Both sides must agree to an international peacekeeping force to ensure that there is a buffer on the borders between Israel and a newPalestinian state.
Forget the talk about winners and losers in this sad conflict. Forget the people on both sides that are inciting the violence. It's time to get serious about peace and its time for the Bush administration to get serious about brokering a peace deal. If the Bush team blows this one, there may not be another chance for years to come.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).