Powell's Path To Jerusalem

Last week The Washington Post reported "the belief held by many Israelis that the recent suicide bombings are an example of anti-Jewish violence." Those who hold this "belief" reject alternative explanations of the violence, such as: The terrorists are targeting Brazilians but are confused about which hemisphere they are in.

Intellectual confusion and moral miasma, expressed in Orwellian language, now permeate U.S. policy and media coverage concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hence the entire war on terrorism is out of kilter. Can an administration that is jerked around like a small poodle on a short leash held by Yasir Arafat mount a major war to change the Iraqi regime? The administration's position is that Arafat is not a terrorist, he is a plausible peacemaker. So how does the administration convince Bush's "mighty coalition" (which is mightily wary of war with Iraq, even one in which it is merely a spectator) that Saddam Hussein is unregenerate and intolerable?

Stroking the coalition matters more and more as Colin Powell becomes more and more ascendant. For years before becoming secretary of State, Powell's vocation was to be the most admired American, traveling about being lionized. He likes being liked, and hence likes consensus, such as he enjoyed last week in Madrid. There representatives of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union said what they usually say, and a "senior American official" gushed that this enabled Powell "to go to the region with these guys behind him."

Actually, Powell was eager to get behind the United Nations', EU's and Russia's pressuring of Israel and concern for Arafat. But why does Russia, a pale shadow of a great power, have a role in this? Anti-Semitism stains much of what the United Nations does. And as for the Europeans: Last week showed that two aspects of 20th-century Europe are alive in the 21st--an appeasement reflex and anti-Semitism. The day the European Parliament threatened economic warfare--trade sanctions--against Israel unless it desisted from its attack on Palestinian terrorism, a Jewish school bus was stoned in Paris. The French government's ambassador to Britain recently blamed much of the world's troubles on "that shitty little country Israel."

Arafat is gorging himself on a feast of U.S. retreats. Powell arrived in Jerusalem ahead of schedule, probably to appease Arab critics. And Powell's path to Jerusalem was strewn with discarded preconditions--the president's, the vice president's, his own--for U.S. assistance to Arafat.

No meeting with Arafat without an end to the violence? Never mind. No meeting without at least a call by Arafat, in person and in Arabic, for an end to the violence? Never mind. It was settled--or so it seemed--U.S. policy that there should not be political talks until there is a truce of proven durability. But by the time Powell reached Jerusalem--the day after one suicide bombing and the day before another--he had promised the Palestinians that political talks would be linked "instantly" to a truce.

Powell counts it a victory that he has Arab nations' assurances that they will help "reconstitute" the Palestinian Authority's "security" and other institutions that Israel is spending much blood and treasure to disrupt. If Powell believes that the PA's purpose is constructive, what else can he manage to believe? Already he and others in the administration believe they are entitled to insist that Israel respond to incessant terrorism less emphatically than the United States responded to September 11. And some in the administration--including Powell?--feel entitled to supplant Israel's public as the chooser of Israel's government.

There is a danger that the president, having made a hash of the principles he has articulated about zero tolerance for terrorism and regimes that facilitate it, will be able to regain emotional equilibrium only by deciding that the problem is personal--that his tormentor is Ariel Sharon. The Clinton administration toiled at undermining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he was an impediment to the appeasement of Arafat. Now the Bush administration may be behaving similarly toward Sharon.

The day Powell arrived in Jerusalem, The Washington Post reported that "senior White House aides are beginning to express doubts about whether the Israeli leader can be a long-term partner in achieving the administration's goals in the Middle East." Evidently these aides think that Arafat can be. Hours after that Post story appeared, the White House veered toward turning down criticism of Israel and urging Arab nations to do "more"--as though they have done something--to be helpful. Thus is an administration seen to be all sail and no anchor.

Before Powell began his trip, one question was: What would happen if, during the trip, another suicide bomber struck? The question was answered last Wednesday, when a terrorist, with nails and screws packed around about 18 pounds of high explosive, killed himself and eight Israelis on a bus. The administration's response, delivered by presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer shortly after the body parts had been scraped off the pavement, was that the mass murder demonstrated "the need for all parties to pull back, for Israel to withdraw and for the Palestinians and the Arabs to stop the violence, stop the killing."

The echo of the suicide bomb was a U.S. call for Israel to retreat. So, not surprisingly, two days later another suicide bomber built on this success. Terrorism works. That is the dominant lesson that U.S. policy is teaching seven months after September 11.

Last week ended with the president diminished by issuing ineffectual demands to all parties in the Middle East. His secretary of State was on a spectacularly ill-advised trip to the Middle East, where, his agenda unclear and his talks punctuated by the concussions of terrorist bombs, he was held hostage to events. The president needs a new policy, and perhaps a new secretary of State.