Memo To: Colin Powell, Secretary of State
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Wiggle Room
I could not but help notice that after the President Bush’s Middle East speech last week, where he asked for “new leadership” in the Palestinian Authority, you were asked what would happen if Yasir Arafat won the new elections next January. You said “We would deal with him.” Now, on the Sunday talk shows, when asked repeatedly if you would deal with him if he were still the chosen leader of the Palestinian people, you would not answer. My assumption is that the White House did not like your earlier answer and pulled the leash to get you fully on board with the idea that the United States does not believe it possible to have a peace process with Arafat and wants someone else, although it does not say who. The Sunday NYTimes strongly suggests you lost the internal struggle with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condi Rice.
There are those who believe this has been a complete sellout to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in the sense that if Arafat is re-elected next January, President Bush can walk away from the mess by saying he can not deal with the same old leadership. My own assessment of the Bush speech was that it did break the ice and commit the President’s prestige to a Palestinian state. The fact that he asked for a “freeze” of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank was the clear step he demanded of Sharon, and we heard over the weekend that while Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, it is dismantling several recent Israeli settlements that had sprouted. I’m assuming you had agreements from Sharon on taking these steps in a way that did not seem to be knuckling under to the U.S. I’m sure Arafat and the Palestinians do not care how progress is made, quietly or loudly, but so far so good. Little things mean a lot.
It has also struck me that by being so harsh in demanding Arafat’s removal, the President has actually empowered him more than he has in the last 18 months – with the Palestinian people!! As long as Arafat was trapped by Sharon in the Ramallah compound, the Israeli and Palestinian extremists were able to disrupt any little movement toward a peace process. My own judgment was that the Israeli right wing was far more disruptive to the peace process than the Palestinians. This is because Israel has enormous military power and the backing of the Israeli lobby in the United States. On each of the Sunday talk shows, you said Arafat failed to take advantage of the opportunities he was afford by President Clinton and by your interventions.
I did not see any opportunities, Mr. Secretary. Intifada II began only when it became clear at Camp David in 2000 that the PLA was being offered a "swiss cheese" state. Even then, the Palestinian kids did not start throwing stones until Ariel Sharon showed up at the Temple Mount with a thousand troops, a clearly planned provocation. It was when Sharon as President ordered Israeli troops to shoot to kill the Palestinian stone throwers that the suicide bombings began. I hope you do not forget that sequence, Mr. Secretary, because it would be easy for you to replay history in your own mind to accommodate to the position you are now trying to sell on the administration’s behalf.
You do have six months to get ahead of the curve, and it should now be easier for you to do that as long as the Palestinian people have a vested interest in Arafat as a symbol of their aspirations. The Arab/Muslim world is unanimous in seeing President’s Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state as an important breakthrough. It also appreciates the President’s concern about Arafat as being hapless, yesterday’s mashed potatoes. But my suggestion is that you continue to push Israel on the settlements in the next six months and see if Arafat is able to maintain sufficient control of the radical Muslim groups to end the suicide bombings. Six months is a long time in politics. If you are adroit in managing this chess game, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yasir Arafat comes back into the favor of the Bush administration. It is still my guess that you are more likely to get results with him than with an unknown.