WASHINGTON--When Colin Powell retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993 he quoted Thucydides: ``Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.'' It might have been an impressive example of restraint if the United States had husbanded its power and continued to refrain from intruding itself, with special emissaries and multiplying plans, into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Secretary of State Powell's Louisville speech about that conflict was useful because it demonstrated that there really is nothing much to be usefully said on the subject at the moment. At least his speech did not make matters worse, or at any rate not much worse.
Before the speech Powell said he would appeal for Arafat to use his ``moral authority'' to stop the terrorists who operate in the territory controlled by Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Perhaps Powell meant that Arafat's status as the world's senior terrorist might make Arafat willing and able to stop terrorism. Perhaps.
Powell did helpfully say that Palestinians must recognize Israel's right to exist as a ``Jewish state.'' This U.S. policy opposes Arafat's demand for an unlimited ``right of return'' for all Palestinians who claim to be connected in some way with those who in 1948 fled Israel, confident that Arab armies would extinguish the new nation.
How important is the ``right of return'' demand--which would mean the effective dissolution of Israel--to Arafat? Prime Minister Ehud Barak's rejection of that demand caused Arafat to scupper the July 2000 Camp David meeting at which Barak, going far beyond any previous Israeli offer and far beyond what he could persuade his country to accept, offered 98 percent of the West Bank and partial Palestinian control of a divided Jerusalem.
In Louisville, Powell made the obligatory denunciation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They occupy only 1.5 percent of the West Bank, and their legality is indisputable, because the West Bank is an unallocated portion of the League of Nations 1922 Palestine Mandate. And the final status of that territory is to be settled by negotiation.
Perhaps Powell meant only that settlements complicate the ``peace process.'' But, then, what did Powell mean when he said Israel must ``end its occupation''? If Powell believes the entire West Bank is occupied Palestinian territory, what is to be negotiated? And what becomes of the ``land for peace'' approach if there is this prejudgment about the land at issue?
In Louisville, Powell endorsed the creation of a ``viable'' Palestinian state. Well. Leave aside the fact that Switzerland would not be viable if governed by the thugocracy that is Arafat's Palestinian Authority. But does Powell believe that the territory currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority is inherently unviable as a state? If so, what territorial adjustments would be necessary for viability? And how might those be squared with his call for ``taking full account of Israel's security needs''?
Does Powell believe that Israel's 1967 borders, within which Israel was at one place just 11 miles wide, were defensible? And what does he think an Israeli withdrawal to those borders would accomplish, given that in 1967 Arafat rejected Israel's right to exist, and today he says that an Israel with the 1967 borders would be illegitimate?
Powell is dispatching two officials to rev up the ``peace process.'' The idea that this is a propitious moment for that is akin to the State Department's recent idea that the Northern Alliance should be asked to stop at the outskirts of Kabul while U.S. diplomats fine-tune Afghanistan's political conditions.
Powell's emissaries follow CIA Director George Tenet's mission, which followed former senator George Mitchell's mission, which produced the idea that the problem between Israel, which intends to exist, and her enemies, who say she should not, is a lack of ``confidence.'' Hence the centerpiece of the Mitchell plan--``confidence-building measures.''
Powell's emissaries will urge Arafat to arrest--or re-arrest; or re-re-arrest--some terrorists for his revolving-door jails. The hope is that Israel will then drop its supposedly utopian demand for a week--yes, seven whole days--without violence before proceeding with ``confidence-building.''
When Arafat launched the current wave of violence 14 months ago, his pretext was Ariel Sharon's visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The next time Powell meets with the world's senior terrorist, he should ask Arafat: Do you deny, in spite of abundant historical and archeological evidence, that the Temple Mount is the location of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D.? When Powell hears Arafat's answer, Powell's confidence may need to be rebuilt.