Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Is George W. Bush More Relevant Than Yasser Arafat?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Is George W. Bush More Relevant Than Yasser Arafat?

Article excerpt

Eugene Bird, a retired foreign service officer, is president of the Council for the National Interest and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report.

For months now, the Sharon government and its rightwing ministers have been putting about that Yasser Arafat no longer is relevant. Indeed, the Israelis now are openly saying that, after surviving more than 38 years as head of the umbrella Palestinian nationalist organization, Arafat should depart the scene.

After witnessing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush's press conference, however--held Feb. 7, a week before Valentine's Day--in which they fielded questions about Arafat, one might instead ask how relevant America is. After all, if Washington continues talking only to one party and maintaining a hands-off policy on the basic issues, the not unpredictable result--demonstrated daily, and with increasing ferocity--is that Israel never will have to compromise.

At the Oval Office press conference, President Bush said that Arafat not only was responsible for the continued violence, but that he could do a lot more to stop it. For his part, Sharon emphasized the Palestinian Authority's evil terrorism. This, of course, makes it impossible for Arafat to be a partner in any future negotiations. Indeed, not only has the American president refused to meet, or even shake hands with, Arafat, but Sharon, who has met with Bush four times, also has not met with his Palestinian counterpart since he became prime minister.

When asked about the question of relevance following a week of increasing violence, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher replied that Secretary of State Colin Powell's numerous telephone calls were proof of American engagement. In one weekend, he said, Powell telephoned Sharon, Arafat, Jordan's King Abdullah, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and EU Ambassador Javier Solana, who still visits Arafat in his encircled Ramallah compound. Besides, Boucher added, the fact was that the parties want America to be involved. All questions about Arafat's ability to do anything while effectively imprisoned were turned aside. One hundred percent effort was all that was needed, the mantra went.

Although the American president had emphasized how important it was for Arafat to end the violence, the Israeli prime minister gave Arafat no reason to do so, except that at the end of negotiations there might be a Palestinian state--which Sharon all but said would not be headed by Arafat. If anything, Israel is moving the goalposts. After weeks of Israeli demands that Arafat arrest the three men wanted for the killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi the Palestine Authority complied. Its reward? Arafat now is permitted to have other visitors and move about Ramallah to a slightly greater extent.

Each time Washington has pressured Arafat to make the fabled 100 percent effort, he has moved to do so by arresting a few more men wanted by Israel. It took a horrendous first week of March, during which more than 80 Palestinians and Israelis were killed, for Colin Powell to issue his first stern warning to Sharon that there could be no military solution for either side. In terms of the U.S. population, that week's death toll was the equivalent of more than 2,500 Americans.

The Department had said on occasion that there should be security for the Palestinians and that Israel should provide safe and secure passage at checkpoints.

Yet the only result of American policy has been an increase in violence. On that score alone, the Department's yearlong effort to gain traction by implementing first, the Tenet security cooperation proposals and, secondly, the Mitchell Report can only be described as no longer relevant.

$10 a Month to Keep Palestinians at Bay

The president made one other promise at his press conference with Prime Minister Sharon: that those Palestinian people who were suffering and who were not terrorists would receive $300 million in relief through various American non-governmental organizations. …

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