Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to indicate a shift in emphasis in U.S. policy toward the Middle East when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., Monday (March 19).
Instead of focusing solely on Israel, as if that nation was the cause of instability in the region, Powell put things in a broader context by speaking of threats to international peace and stability posed by Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and of troubles within Macedonia and the Congo. It was only after speaking about these threats that Powell got around to Israel's problems.
In a subtle, yet significant departure from eight years of pressuring Israel by the Clinton administration, Powell said, "We will not strive for some arbitrary measure of even-handedness when responsibility is not evenly shared." The audience applauded wildly. Evenhandedness in the region is unfair because the threat to tiny Israel by its huge and belligerent neighbors has always been uneven.
Powell said it is this administration's policy that the violence must stop before peace talks can make progress. He didn't mention Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by name, but he didn't have to. When Powell said, "Leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of its legitimacy, stop it," he could only have been talking about those, like Arafat, who have attacked Israel from within and supported attacks from without.
Powell also made it clear that while the United States would not be a bystander, "the parties themselves hold the keys to their own futures... . Turning to the United States or other outside parties to pressure one or another party or to impose a settlement is not the answer." That was as clear a rebuke to the policies of the Clinton administration as one is likely to hear. Powell added, as if for emphasis, "The United States stands to assist, not insist."
When the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, addressed the same group Monday night, he noted, "The situation in the Middle East in 2001 is no longer the same as it was in 1991. The security of the region as a whole has eroded." Sharon picked up on Powell's remarks about a region-wide threat to stability because of state-sanctioned terrorism and "acts of terror instigated by the Palestinian Authority, coupled with deliberate incitement." He agreed with Powell that "Regional security is eroding in the wider Middle East."
How bad is it? As noted in "JINSA Reports," a pro-Israel publication put out by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Iran supports terrorism and receives weapons and nuclear technology from Russia and China. Arab leaders are reluctant to rejoin a coalition led by the United States against Saddam Hussein, not only because of American support for Israel, but because we didn't finish the job when we had the chance to crush Saddam, and they fear we might pull our punch again, leaving them vulnerable.
Jordan's security concerns were virtually ignored by the previous administration, leading Saddam to make public comments about being given Jordan as a staging point for an attack on Israel.
Even Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, is armed to the teeth and there's no guarantee it would not threaten Israel, using arms the United States has supplied. The Mubarak government remains unstable. The Egyptian press, which is largely controlled by the government, engages in personal attacks on Powell. Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest circulation daily, recently carried a story which some might find disparaging of Powell's race.
The key to peace has not only been Israeli military power but unity in the country and a resolve to defend the nation. The apparent like-mindedness between the new American administration and the new Israeli administration provides the best hope of re-stabilizing the Middle East and securing Israel within defensible borders.
Now it's up to Yasser Arafat to decide whether to stop the violence or risk serious diplomatic and possibly military repercussions from a rejuvenated Israel backed by the United States. The Bush administration appears ready to forget the even hand and instead give Arafat the back of its hand if he refuses to stop the violence.