Magazine article The American Prospect

Snatching Defeat: Bush Doesn't Want to Push Peace. Why Not? (below the Beltway)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Snatching Defeat: Bush Doesn't Want to Push Peace. Why Not? (below the Beltway)

Article excerpt

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 200l, 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 agreement. As prime minister of a coalition government that includes Barak as well as 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 Yasir 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. …

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