- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

I appreciate that diplomatic language is characterized by subtlety and indirection, but the current pronouncements concerning the Middle East peace process requires one either to toss one's dictionary out the window or succumb to a brooding, northern latitudes, three vodka bottles, endless night pessimism about peace prospects.

Last week I was at a small press breakfast with former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens one of the smartest, coolest heads in the Knesset. He announced matter-of-factly that the last month of Israeli military activity in the West Bank had accomplished about 20 percent of the necessary anti-terrorist raids. He anticipated that the remaining 80 percent would be carried out in the near future.

Like all Israeli public figures, he refused all comment about the possible removal or reduction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It is well-known that no Israeli government can be formed without the support of the pro-settlement Israeli voters. Thus, for an Israeli government to consider such retractions, it must prepare to be promptly dissolved and face immediate losing election prospects.

The next day Secretary of State Colin Powell announced plans for the Middle East peace conference which will include the Russians, the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, the leading Arab states, the Palestinians, and the Israelis. For the past 30 years or so, the United States has carefully sought to exclude or minimize the role of the Russians, the United Nations, the Europeans, and multiple Arab states in Middle East peace confabs.

To my suspicious mind, our sudden willingness to invite them to dine above the salt at this conference is suggestive of, not so much a search for peace, as a search for blameworthy partners should peace not break out after the peace conference breaks up: Something about having them inside the tent discharging out, rather than outside the tent discharging in.

Then, last Saturday the 22-nation Arab League announced that it will not participate in the peace conference until Israel withdraws from lands it occupied during the latest violence. "How could we think about such a conference while Israel is still occupying the Palestinian territories?" asked Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.

Apparently, the Arabs can't think about attending a conference, the purpose of which, in substantial part, is to think about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. This does not seem to add to a sense of giddy optimism.

Then, over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he would like to attend the conference, but only on condition that: (1)Yasser Arafat not attend, (2) the meeting does not "address the substantive issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians," and (3) that violence by Arab militants first be brought to a halt before any talks could begin.

Oh, and also, according to Mr. Sharon's spokeswoman, Education Minister Limor Livnat, not only must Mr. Arafat not represent the Palestinians, but (according to The Washington Post) "the Palestinians must overhaul their security forces, bring rival military organizations under central control and liberalize their political system. We demand and expect the Palestinian authority to take steps toward democracy [she said]." When? By next Tuesday; or will Thursday do?

The Israelis have suggested to Mr. Powell that Turkey would be a good location for the conference. I would suggest a better location through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole in Alice's Wonderland, where all of this might make some sense.

But, ever the diplomat, Mr. Powell told the Anti-Defamation League that he is looking for "the promotion of serious and accelerated negotiations."

Adding to the unreality of these proceedings was the Bush administration official's response to the unimpeachable Israeli evidence that Mr. Arafat remains the hands-on boss of anti-Israeli terrorism: "The failings of Arafat are not new. It's nothing the president needs to be convinced of … but Chairman Arafat is the accepted leader of his people … [and] concentration on the past is counterproductive."

With all respect to this doubtlessly stripe-trousered unnamed Bush senior official: The counterproductive past he refers to occurred, most recently, yesterday, when there was another Palestinian suicide bombing with over a dozen Israelis killed.

Is it "counterproductive" for President Bush to "concentrate on the past" of Osama bin Laden? Should we forget about September 11 and look forward to "serious and accelerated negotiations" with bin Laden regarding our disputes with al Qaeda? I'm sure he is their "accepted leader."

With both the Palestinians and the Israelis intent on making impossible demands rather than negotiating practical terms, and with the Bush administration fatuously characterizing an awareness of Mr. Arafat's current war-making intent as a counterproductive concentration on the past, the Middle East coffin-makers will not have to worry. Anyway, with the Europeans, the United Nations, moderate Arabs and the Russians equally responsible, the killing won't be our fault. C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la paix (with apologies to Gen. Bosquest).


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