Listen carefully to the news headlines this week, and you will hear it: the drip, drip, dripping noise of America's prestige—and the reputation of America's secretary of state—dwindling away in the Middle East. Let us be blunt: So far, Colin Powell's mission to the region has been a diplomatic disaster.
More to the point, George Bush's "new Mideast peace initiative," announced with great fanfare in the White House Rose Garden two weeks ago, lies in tatters. The president's "peace initiative," readers may recollect, called upon the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank. When, a week later, the Israelis hadn't withdrawn from the West Bank, the president made a new statement: "I meant what I said about Israeli withdrawal." Since then, another week has passed: no withdrawal.
Perhaps the president could now issue another statement: "Israel must withdraw. This time I really, really mean it." Or perhaps we could all face up to a hard truth: A statement of the American government's desires does not constitute a policy change, let alone a "new Mideast peace initiative." Nor do Colin Powell's appointments with Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon constitute "progress" of any but the most elementary kind. It is easy, I know, to be misled by the trappings of diplomacy—by the TV shots of Powell's motorcade entering Ramallah, by the leaders smiling and shaking hands in front of cameras—but, in fact, nothing of substance has yet been changed by Powell's visit.
It was also easy, I know, to be misled by the general satisfaction that followed the president's Rose Garden statement. "This is an indication that we're now in the game," Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, told the Washington Post. "President Bush is doing the right thing," said Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At last, the pundits murmured, we are "involved." Alas, being "involved" or "in the game" will only make the United States look pathetic and powerless, unless the United States actually has something new to bring to the table
By "new" I mean new policy, not more rhetoric: If rhetoric could have solved his conflict, it would have been over a long time ago. But in order to create a genuinely new policy, George Bush would have to take sides, one way or another, and put his money, or his military, where his mouth is. If Bush really believes, for example, that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, then he should freeze all American aid to Israel until the withdrawal is complete. Or if he really believes, as Colin Powell hinted over the weekend, that Israel's war against terrorism is legitimate, then he should give Sharon the green light, back him up with U.S. special forces, and let him get on with it.
Holding both positions at once is not credible—nor is the endless bleating about the need for a cease-fire. Sure we need a cease-fire—but how do we get one? If the American president really cared to commit himself, he could send in American troops to impose one. Or he could call an international conference—perhaps under the auspices of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations—and redraw Israel's borders, setting up a defensible yet heavily guarded border between Israel and a new Palestinian state. There is certainly a historical precedent for such a conference: Half a century ago, Israel itself was created in a similar manner.
If, however, the president is not willing to take any of these steps—and I can well see why he would not be—then he should stay out altogether. If we are not going to commit ourselves, militarily or financially, to ending the war, there is only one alternative: Let them fight. That is, let the outside world stand back and watch, until the two sides mutually decide that they have reached the limits of what violence can achieve. Let the Israelis conclude that their tanks cannot stop young girls from exploding bombs in supermarkets. Let the Palestinians conclude that terror campaigns only create more hatred and anger in Israel and ultimately do their cause no good.
As I've written before, at least a portion of Israeli society—the portion that includes Sharon—still believes that only guns and tanks, not treaties, can keep Israel safe from terrorism. Equally, a portion of Palestinian society continues to believe that only terrorism will win them the kind of deal they want: "Just one last wave of suicide bombers and then the Israelis will cave in." Until one side, or preferably both, comes to realize of its own accord that it can't gain any further advantage through violence, no outsider—not Colin Powell, not George Bush, not the Pentagon, White House, and State Department combined—will be able to persuade them. Being "in the game" just for the sake of being in the game achieves nothing—except the further deterioration of American authority in the region.