Once more the mountain roared and produced nothing. The much acclaimed visit of the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, to Israel and Palestine has ended with no yield, instantly deflating any hopes that may have developed earlier as a result of the repeated promises and the “firm” commitment from President George Bush on his unwavering determination to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict by implementing the road map. Taking stock of the losses of this disappointing move for all concerned parties reveals a very disturbing picture that goes far beyond the bitter reality of another “promising” attempt and another instant failure, into the erosion of any superpower credibility and efficacy for a long time to come, and leaving many losers and no winners.
One loser is the Palestinian prime minister.
The Palestinians, their new prime minister in particular, will find themselves now in a very untenable and indeed highly critical situation, stuck with a commitment to implement their share of a road map which they had unconditionally accepted, but without getting anything in return, except the vague and the empty goodwill words from the secretary of state’s concluding remarks in his press conference. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been severely let down by his American guest whose constant demand from the Palestinians to dismantle the “terrorist” groups as a prerequisite for any further action, constantly affirmed during the visit, was not matched by any credible promise of any reciprocal Israeli measure to make Abbas’ task approachable.
Ariel Sharon had already been deliberately placing impassable roadblocks ahead of Abbas, not only by maintaining but by significantly escalating attacks on Palestinian towns and camps, assassinations by firing air to ground missiles, detentions, incursions and demolition of houses. More than 23 Palestinians were killed in the week which followed the publication of the road map, in addition to being subjected to many other barbaric atrocities. Of course, a few Israelis were also killed, but that precisely is the point; it is the needed, and indeed the provoked Palestinian response which Israeli propaganda spreads and magnifies as proof of continued Palestinian terror. This violence is the needed cover for Israeli rejection of the road map and it is used to place the blame squarely on the Palestinian side for its inability to end “terror”.
It was Abbas’ hope that the Powell visit would pressure the Sharon government into accepting the road map and reciprocating any Palestinian action with meaningful commitments, such as ceasing attacks, lifting the suffocating siege and freezing settlement activity, as the road map requires. Had all of this occurred it would have been only a modest start, but it would also have been significant in the sense that it would strengthen the hand of the Palestinian moderates led by the new prime minister against the prevailing current of hopelessness, disbelief and despair.
What happened is exactly the opposite, with Israeli intransigence timidly overlooked rather than resolutely checked, and with the Palestinian prime minister left totally disarmed in the face of those who would now further defy his authority and challenge his claim that there was indeed any opportunity for advancing a peace settlement if they were disbanded and disarmed. Their calls for maintaining their resistance, even armed resistance, to the occupation as the only option has unquestionably been vindicated by Powell’s spectacular fiasco.
The second loser is the Israeli people.
The Palestinian loss is not, in this case, the automatic Israeli gain. It is possible that Sharon may see it as a victory for his malicious plan to destroy the road map and the little promise it held for ending the deadly violence which has been, not only for the last three years, but for an entire period of over five decades senselessly destroying Jewish and Arab lives. Often, it is the suffering of the Palestinians and the negative impact of the Intifada on the Palestinian people that is more exposed to prove the futility of violence as an alternative to dialogue. It is actually true that the Palestinian suffering has been immeasurable and incomparable. Yet, it is equally true that Israeli suffering has been great, and the Israelis’ need for an urgent exit from the bloody cycle of violence and insecurity is also great. The Intifada and Israel’s violent crackdown have been very costly and extremely damaging to both the Palestinians and Israeli civilians. But while the Palestinians, victims of an ongoing Israeli aggression, have no choice but to legitimately seek their freedom from an occupation which is assuming permanency and gradually displacing them and eliminating their rights, the Israelis, on the other hand, are becoming victims of the unjustified greed of their leaders, their expansionist plans, their terrible occupation and their extremist policies which have been constantly feeding the worst types of war and violence.
The responsibility of the road map sponsors and creators in failing to enforce the plan’s timely implementation for the sake of Arab and Jewish peace and security should be no less than that of the ultra right-wing government of Sharon in destroying this historic opportunity. With such warmongering racist leaders, the Israeli people must also have pinned their hope on their American allies to be more forceful in imposing a peace plan which, in addition to its intrinsic virtue, happens to be more right and more beneficial to them than it is for all the others. Missing this opportunity will only prolong the Israeli suffering, cost them more precious lives, further deprive them of normal life and security and never guarantee them, in the long run, any more (if not less) territory or rights than what they handsomely would get away with now. That should certainly be adequate to place Israel amongst the category of the losers.
The third loser is the United States.
After so much bellowing and roaring from the US president over his commitment and resolve to create a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, it was remarkable to see his secretary of state stumbling with the words to cover his failure in achieving anything to help the road map to lift off. Powell’s assurances that there is enough agreement on elements of the road map, that the Israelis promised some steps, that he has to wait for Israeli comments, that the two sides should conduct their own dialogue, and that the Palestinians should do more to dismantle terror, would impress no one in the region nor would it convince its people that there is any progress to reckon with.
The visit was a total failure and that will further complicate the situation rather than just demonstrate negative achievement. The standing, as well as the integrity of the US will suffer as a result of showing once more its inability, or unwillingness, to confront the Israel’s arrogant defiance of a serious attempt to resuscitate the peace process. This failure exposes the American claim that one of the primary aims of its war on Iraq was to prepare the region for a future of peace, prosperity and democracy.
This failure will also greatly devalue the stern demands the Secretary of State had earlier presented to Syria, Lebanon and Iran on the issue of Hamas, Jihad and Hizbollah, making him look more like an Israeli envoy delivering Sharon’s mail than a superpower leader on a mission of peace for the whole region. The image of the US will further suffer worldwide and the already mounting resentment in the Arab and Muslim worlds over American acquiescence to the Israeli behaviour, at the expense of justice and international law, is bound to rocket beyond imagination.
Depending on how they react to this unserious mission, the other three partners in the Quartet, the EU, the UN and Russia (the reaction of the ever enthusiastic Prime Minister Tony Blair should be particularly interesting) will eventually determine if they also join the list of losers. It is very unlikely, with the Powell mission establishing such a dismal framework, that much is left for the others to do. One is very curious to witness how EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana will handle his current tour in the region, which was probably meant to build on Powell’s anticipated spectacular success.
Is it not true that the United States is the only power that holds the key for any action towards a settlement in the region, and once it stalls any other movement also does? It should be no surprise to anyone in a region who has, over the years, become used to failed missions that another attempt has dramatically and instantly fallen apart. The question is how many more such failures we need before we finally realise that the way out is to follow the road map, not to start the long journey with an aimless detour.
The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.