Snatching Defeat

The United States scored a great military and diplomatic victory in Afghanistan. It drove out a hostile regime. It dealt a serious, though not fatal, blow to the al-Qaeda terrorist network and assembled a coalition against radical Islam that stretched from North Africa to East Asia. But the Bush administration now appears poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Once the guns stopped firing in Kandahar, it reverted to the self-centered foreign policy that it had practiced before September 11. This is nowhere more apparent than in U.S. relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The undeclared Israeli-Palestinian war is the great unresolved conflict coming out of World War II -- pitting Israel's Jewish immigrants, who were in need of a homeland after centuries of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust, against the Palestinians, who lost their homeland to the Israeli state. For half a century, the conflict has been a source of moral anguish and instability in the Mideast -- from the Suez crisis of 1956 through the oil boycott of the early 1970s, down to the first and second intifadas. While it neither motivated nor justified al-Qaeda''s assault on the United States, it has certainly fueled sympathy in Arab countries for the radical Islamic cause. And it threatens to spread to Jordan's unsteady Hashemite regime and to Hosni Mubarak's Egypt.

The current clash, which by this writing has taken the lives of at least 249 Israelis and 832 Palestinians, is a product of each side's more intransigent political forces gaining ascendancy. In February 2001, Israelis -- embittered by the Palestinian rejection of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace proposal and the onset of a second intifada -- brought Ariel Sharon to power. Sharon was the architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and Israel's settlement policies in the West Bank and Gaza; he was a die-hard opponent, along with Likud Party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. As prime minister of a coalition government that includes Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres, Sharon has nonetheless sought to undermine the Oslo accords. One month after he took office, his government announced plans for 710 new settlements in the West Bank -- a message to the Palestinians that Israel had no intention of ending the occupation. And as he did in 1982, Sharon has tried to discredit the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat by systematically attributing to him terrorist acts that were actually intended to subvert Arafat's leadership.

Among the Palestinians, Arafat and company remain the titular leaders. But as political scientist Khalil Shikaki argues in the January--February issue of Foreign Affairs, Arafat's leadership and his commitment to a negotiated settlement have been challenged by a "young guard" of secular Palestinians and by the radical Islamic militants from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Like the old guard, the young guard want a secular Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; but inspired by Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, they think that the Israelis can be driven out of the occupied territories by violence and terror. The Islamic militants, who remain a minority force, want to use terror to replace Israel with an Islamic state. The corruption and inefficiency of Arafat's Palestinian Authority combined with Sharon's attempt to isolate Arafat and beat the Palestinians into submission have brought the young guard and the Islamic militants to the fore. Their terrorist attacks and the Sharon government's increasingly brutal reprisals have driven the two sides -- who, in the wake of Oslo, seemed on the verge of reconciliation -- to a virtual state of war.

In the Bush administration's first eight months, it did nothing to stem this conflict. When Sharon visited the president last March, Bush assured him that "our nation will not force peace." Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to re-establish the United States as a mediator by criticizing both the Palestinians' terrorist attacks and the Sharon government's encouragement of new settlements, but Bush favored Sharon's view that the besieged Arafat must end the violence against Israelis before negotiations could commence -- a position that made the negotiations hostage to Islamic militants. "The Israelis will not negotiate under terrorist threat," Bush declared last August. The president's tacit endorsement of Israel meant that the United States could not play the role of mediator and increased the likelihood that the conflict would intensify.

Bush's position reflected in part a neo-isolationist foreign policy. Like the House Republicans who had opposed American intervention in the Balkans, the president took an extremely narrow view of when American intervention overseas was appropriate. He was also determined to undo Bill Clinton's diplomatic efforts, whether in North Korea or in Israel. This meant tilting away from Israel's Labor Party and toward the anti-Oslo group composed of Sharon, Netanyahu, and the Likud Party -- a position favored by hard-line conservatives in and around Bush's administration.

After September 11, however, the administration abruptly abandoned its neo-isolationist and unilateral foreign policy. Powell, who played a decisive role in winning Pakistan to the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, gained new influence; and in November, he and Bush declared America's determination to promote a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a speech at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Powell deplored Palestinian attempts to win their claims "through violence" but also criticized Sharon's encouragement of settlements. Powell announced that he was sending Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni to Israel to facilitate negotiations between the two sides. It looked like the Bush administration was finally determined to "force peace."

In the last six weeks, though, the United States has reverted to its pre-September 11 policies. It withdrew its negotiators and began favoring Sharon even more decidedly than before. The apparent cause was Arafat's complicity in an Iranian arms shipment to the Palestinians. But faced with defeat, Arafat has always resorted to violence to regain his leverage. The arms shipment was simply another such move in an escalating conflict. The United States, instead of coming between the two sides, endorsed Sharon's tack of undermining Arafat's leadership. While Bush didn't cut off relations entirely with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as Sharon demanded and Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld advised, the president did nothing to deter Sharon. Yet Sharon's strategy, if successful, will empower the most extremist elements in the Palestinian movement, dooming any potential for peace.

If George W. Bush wanted a precedent to follow in the Mideast, he could have looked back at what his father did after America's victory in the Gulf War. The first Bush administration, joined by its Gulf War allies, convened a conference in Madrid in October 1991 to "force peace" upon the Israelis and the Palestinians. At the time, relations between them were as fractious as they are now. Israeli's government was led by the Likud Party's Yitzhak Shamir, who was pledged to the creation of a "greater Israel" that incorporated the West Bank. (Sharon, then his housing minister, promised on the eve of the Madrid conference to double the number of settlements within four years.) The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and the first intifada was in full swing. Hamas, which had been founded in 1988, was gaining converts. And Arafat, headquartered in Tunis, was widely regarded as a doddering irrelevance. But just as it is now, Arafat's Palestinian leadership was formally committed to a two-state solution. Additionally, there was underlying, though quiet, support among both Israelis and Palestinians for a negotiated settlement.

Under American pressure -- the elder Bush threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees -- the Shamir government reluctantly agreed to face a Palestinian delegation, as long as Arafat and the PLO were excluded. The conference itself did not lead to a peace agreement, but it set the stage for the successful negotiations at Oslo two years later between a new Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, and the PLO. "We inherited the framework of the Madrid conference from the previous government," Rabin told the Knesset. Today, George W., enjoying the clout that his administration has acquired during the war in Afghanistan, has the same opportunity to force negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- and even to guarantee a cease-fire -- yet is refusing to do so.

Sad to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only instance in which the United States has reverted to its pre-September 11 practices. In December, Bush unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, angering Russia and Western Europe for the sake of an extraordinarily costly weapons system of dubious military utility. This February the administration refused to participate in an international conference on foreign aid unless European countries abandoned a proposal for developed nations to double their aid to poor countries. The European plan was an appropriate response to the anti-Western strains of radical Islam that have multiplied in the parts of Asia and Africa that are plagued by illiteracy, malnutrition, and disease. And accepting it would not have dented the U.S. budget. While Germany spends 0.27 percent of its gross domestic product on foreign aid, France 0.33 percent, and Sweden 0.81 percent, the United States spends a meager 0.10 percent.

Bush's reversion to neo-isolationism and unilateralism has not dimmed his reputation among pundits or the public. Political commentators who were once quick to condemn his grammar now herald his moral and geopolitical insight in uncovering a new "axis of evil." Bush's Democratic opposition doesn't blink at the prospect of a new war in Iraq. But the unpleasant truth is that in foreign policy, Bush is leading the country back into the black hole from which it temporarily emerged last fall. He and his administration may have proven to be expert in waging war in Afghanistan; but they have done nothing to demonstrate that they will be able to keep the peace.

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