Dead diplomacy

Posted: Apr 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Tuesday morning we learned that the king of Jordan snubbed the president of the United States. He was angered, the press reports, by Mr. Bush's sudden moves last week on the Israel question. What Mr. Bush did was (1) back Ariel Sharon on his proposed removal of all Israeli military from the Gaza Strip, (2) reject the Palestinian contention that there was a "right of return" for descendants of the 1948 dispossessed, and (3) advise that the United States would have no objection to Israel's retaining several large and important settlements in the West Bank. So? The king canceled his proposed stay in Washington.

If you think Jordan's King Abdullah was acting precipitately, you have lost count of diplomatic currents and crosscurrents in the recent season. Jordan's rebuff came after one week of excoriations by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. It is serious business to antagonize Mubarak, though one wonders whether he would be irritated to the point of declining our subsidy for him of $2 billion per year.

(My occasional reminder to myself of the magnitude of sums of money followed by nine zeroes: If the day Christ died you set out to give $1 million every year to your favorite charity, you would not yet, April 2004, have spent $2 billion.)

Complicity by Egypt made possible the great meeting between Sadat and Begin, though almost everything since then has gone sour -- and the Israeli settlements were a part of the problem, offset by anti-Israeli terrorism featuring the suicide bombers.

The diplomatic thicket ... thickened. A few weeks ago, an Israeli helicopter bore down on Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the venerable leader of the Hamas movement, indeed its founder. When that happened, a few hours passed before the United States condemned the killing, pursuant to our general line that targeted assassinations of leaders should not be permitted, let alone encouraged. That delay hugely galled the Palestinians. From this, the administration learned a lesson, so that when four weeks after assassinating the first Hamas leader, the Israelis assassinated his successor, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the White House was much quicker in repudiating the act, inasmuch as the United States is "gravely concerned for regional peace and stability."

The Arab world is entitled to wonder at the consistency of U.S. concern for regional peace and stability, Mr. Bush having, without notice to the region, ceded the West Bank settlements to which we had been so vociferously opposed. That concession, we learn, reflected yet another diplomatic demarche. General Sharon was bound to Washington for a visit with President Bush. Sharon passed along the word that unless we proceeded with the approvals he wished, he would delay the visit. Or cancel it? Imagine, the burden at one and the same time of a standoff in Fallujah and a boycott from Israel!

Mr. Bush has problems here which diplomatic deftness can't easily cure. Israel is not formally at war with Palestine, but such liberties as it has been taking by assassinating Hamas leaders are not easy for the United States to repudiate as inherently abhorrent. In 1943 we shot down Admiral Yamamoto in his airplane. Not because he was just any Japanese admiral, but because he was Admiral Yamamoto -- the man who had planned Pearl Harbor and advised his staff that he expected to preside over the surrender of the United States in Washington, D.C. General Sharon quite understandably wants to shoot down any leader of an organization that proudly claims Israeli victims in its terrorist offensive. And the United States will continue to bemoan these assassinations. After a while, the whole thing can be put on software.

What Mr. Bush cannot ease himself out of is the sense of betrayal brought on by surrendering in the matter of the settlements. If the president has reasoned that leaving Gaza alone will soon make up for that West Bank surrender, he cannot hope that Gaza will bring on a regenerated Palestinian community in time to affect the larger matters pending. They are: the drift of opinion by young Muslims urged to consider Western alternatives of freedom and self-rule; and by older, professionally antagonistic ideologues, who are saying that the United States cannot be trusted.