The US's Mideast disconnect

Secretary of State Colin Powell took a highly visible and important trip around the Middle East last week, marred by unabated casualties and destruction. But as he wound his way to Israel, his mission demonstrated how disconnected the Washington debate has become from the rapidly changing environment in the region.

It's not clear whether the Bush administration sent Mr. Powell to Arab countries before Israel to give Israeli forces time to withdraw from Palestinian cities. Surely, though, there was another logic to the itinerary: to show that President Bush's demand for Israeli withdrawal has not undermined his determination that Arab leaders – especially Palestinian President Yasser Arafat – stand publicly to condemn suicide bombings unequivocally, then use this Arab position to strengthen his demand for Israeli withdrawal.

The problem is that in focusing on appearances, Washington lost sight of the fast-moving events, and of the real aim of US demands on Arab leaders: to help delegitimize terrorism in the minds of an outraged Arab public. While Israelis rolled their tanks through Palestinian towns and refugee camps, Arab leaders would have delegitimized themselves with their people, had they responded to Powell without seeing an end to Israeli operations. This would have made it more difficult for the leaders to confront terrorism and push forward toward peace later.

Washington is not paying sufficient attention to how the public in the Middle East – and globally – sees the events of the last two weeks. Arab satellite television stations and other world media carry live pictures of the horror in Palestinian cities and live phone calls from Palestinian men and women calling events massacres and atrocities – in the same way that Israeli media focus on the horrible deaths of innocent Israelis.

Coverage of Israeli tanks and dead Palestinians is sprinkled with pictures from the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre for which Arabs blame Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defense minister. Callers from all over the Arab and Muslim worlds brand Arab leaders "servants of America and Israel."

Breaking news reports such things as the destruction of a mosque in the West Bank town of Nablus, accompanied by a commentary about the impotence of Arabs and Muslims to respond. Other callers recommend surrounding not US embassies but security forces in the Arab world, to humiliate them for their inability to act. People who still want to believe Arab governments can do more call upon them to sever all ties with Israel, boycott American products, and declare an oil embargo.

Arab and Muslim publics see a US green light for Ariel Sharon. In this environment – which has already led to mass demonstrations across Arab and Muslim countries – it is hard to see how the Arab public would take its leaders seriously if they stood beside Powell to condemn Palestinian terrorism, while Israeli tanks remain in Palestinian cities. Their own authority would have been undermined instead.

At the outset of the Israeli operations, no image seemed more extraordinary in the region than the American demand of Mr. Arafat to "do more:" Israeli forces had just destroyed much of Arafat's headquarters and cut off water and electricity to his compound. Israeli soldiers were down the hall from his office, and gunfire was heard all around – televised to the world.

President Bush declares to the world that Arafat can still "do more," saying nothing about the actions of Ariel Sharon. While there may be a legitimate factual debate about Arafat's actual capabilities, the images themselves were highly perplexing to people in the region.

The Bush administration faces extraordinary challenges. First, the US must not underestimate the humanitarian disaster that has just taken place, with hundreds of casualties, including women and children, destroyed infrastructure, and a psychology of despair on the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side, suicide bombings have killed many innocents and created an environment of fear. To expect that Arafat and Mr. Sharon or any other Palestinian and Israeli leaders will be able to negotiate a cease-fire and enforce it is asking for miracles.

Second, the focus on Arafat as if he is now a key to peace or war distracts from the magnitude of the US challenge: disruptions across the Arab world, possible spillover of the conflict to other fronts, especially with Lebanon and Syria, and gathering momentum toward broad confrontation between the US and Muslim countries. No one stands to gain from such confrontation.

To imagine that Arafat is able to prevent the unfortunate but pervasive propensity for revenge among Palestinians is to set US diplomacy up for failure before it begins. And to base the US debate about policy options on whether or not Arafat will be "rewarded" or "punished" is to ignore a historic responsibility the United States now has, affecting the future of Middle East peace and US relations with the region.

It is hard to envision a return to incremental diplomacy. A cease-fire agreement is unlikely to hold without knowing what follows, and the trust of the parties toward each other is at an all-time low. What's left is a top-down approach: an American plan, backed by the UN Security Council, that defines the parameters of a settlement. It is an approach that broadens the process beyond Arafat and Sharon, without ignoring them, and puts the choice in front of their people to hold them accountable.

• Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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