Bush's Mideast Lessons

The Bush administration's recent strides in the Middle East illustrate two important points the White House cannot ignore -- particularly if it expects the recently-announced summer peace summit to succeed.

| Fri May 3, 2002 3:00 AM EDT

The Bush administration's commendable success in negotiating an end to Yasser Arafat's Ramallah isolation illustrated two major weaknesses in Washington's recent policy approach to the region. Now, hopes for this summer's equally commendable international conference on the Middle East could depend on whether the White House can address those weaknesses.

First, it should have become abundantly clear to officials in Washington that even small steps forward (and Arafat's marginal freedom must be considered a small step) are worth the possible political costs of deep involvement. Washington's credibility in the Middle East -- not to mention the Israelis and the Palestinians -- suffered terribly while the White House shied from such involvement.

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Second, it must be recognized that American diplomacy in so charged a region works best in concert with friends abroad, most notably Washington's European allies. It is worth noting that the compromise which led to Arafat's freedom reportedly originated from suggestions made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a meeting with President Bush in Texas last month.

The small assist from Blair -- and by extension, Europe -- offers a stark reminder that the sort of protracted, creative diplomatic effort that might conceivably lead to a lasting solution to the Mideast crisis is unlikely to succeed without the active involvement of European political leaders -- as well as moderate Arab states and the rest of the world. In that sense, the administration's support for the summer peace summit, planned in concert with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, would suggest that the administration has learned its lessons.

The notion of getting Europe more involved in Mideast politics might sound ludicrous to some ears. After all, the stunning first-round victory of latter-day French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen has aroused worldwide concerns of a revival of right-wing tendencies in Europe. Coupled with a series of ugly anti-Semitic incidents, mostly in France, the Le Pen victory has inspired much talk in the US of Europe's "anti-Israel" sentiments.

But most of this speculation has come from afar, and is misleading. Most of the despicable anti-Semitic acts have been attributed to North African immigrants, undercutting the argument that they tell us something about "Europe." As for Le Pen, lamentable as his place on the French political stage has long been, it should be put in some kind of perspective. His 17 percent showing in the first round was only two percentage points better than his previous best showing, back in 1995, when he earned 15 percent of the first-round votes.

Despite the hype of last week, Le Pen remains at most a marginal figure in French politics. French voters turned out en masse this weekend to give President Jacques Chirac a landslide victory over Le Pen -- a vote seen as much as a rejection of Le Pen as an endorsement of the scandal-plagued Chirac.

More important, France is not "Europe," and the anti-American and anti-Israel squawking of individual voices should be seen for what it is, mostly an expression of envy and resentment of America's unrivaled political, cultural and economic influence -- and of the foreign ally that receives more US support than any other.

It is precisely the differences between European and American perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that give European leaders added leverage with Arafat -- and since he was the one who walked away from a deal at Camp David, setting up the current cycle of violence, a responsible US policy cannot afford to dismiss the role European pressure on Arafat and the Palestinians can play.

Last June, for example, it was through the direct intervention of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that Arafat agreed to a cease-fire and condemned the terrorist bombing that killed 20 Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub. As Time Magazine noted, "Arafat's cease-fire statement was actually drafted during a heated meeting with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, and the Palestinian leader's sense of being cornered diplomatically was underscored by the insistence of everyone from President George W. Bush to President Vladimir Putin that the Palestinian leader call for an end to violence if he wanted international help in restarting negotiations."

Such a sense of being cornered diplomatically may be the only hope for forcing the Palestinians to renounce terrorism in a meaningful way, and give up on the absurd notion of terrorizing Israel to accept peace on Palestinian terms. Whatever else emerges about the civilian death toll of recent Israeli military operations in the West Bank, they offered clear evidence of Israeli military resolve -- and clear refutation of militant Palestinians' belief that an Israel grown soft could be overwhelmed by bloody terrorist acts.

President Bush has shown signs of understanding that it is up to his administration to take strong action to move beyond the currently discredited "peace process," and that is a good sign. But the difficulty of the task ahead for him and his administration should not be understated.

Adopting a more multilateral approach will not be easy for Bush, and neither will reining in his mistrust of the Europeans. Most of all, it will be a tremendous challenge for Bush to back off of his established foreign policy goals, a sweeping pledge to combat global terrorism and a frenzied campaign to topple Saddam Hussein which together formed a "Permanent War Campaign" the administration clearly hoped it could maintain through the 2004 elections.

But by hewing to that campaign, scorning cautionary pleas from all over the world, the Bush administration stands only to squander the moral authority it gained in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The only question is how long it takes the administration to understand the gravity of the current situation in the Middle East -- not just for the Israelis and the Palestinians but for the US and its interests abroad. The US cannot act alone in this case. Bush and his advisors will have to welcome aid and advice from Europe, Russia, moderate Arab states and even the UN.

The administration seems very comfortable accepting the economic interconnectivity of today's world. They must now accept that the same dynamic exists at a diplomatic level. The sooner they do so, the sooner lasting Middle East peace gains at least a modest chance of fruition.

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