During his whirlwind "listening tour" to the Middle East, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is finding his efforts to urge Arab leaders to re-enlist in an American-led alliance against resurgent Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is complicated by increasing hostility towards Israel and the US.
Powell stopped in Israel over the weekend to meet with caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his elected successor Ariel Sharon, as well as PLO chief Yasser Arafat. The meetings were termed "successful" by both Israeli and Palestinian officials, but while Barak and Sharon were openly questioned about the economic sanctions and blockades imposed on Palestinian areas, Powell refrained from drawing attention to Arafat's long-standing ties to Saddam.
The Bush Administration appears bent on rebuilding an anti-Saddam alliance among Arab countries, especially to forestall Baghdad's acquisition of non-conventional weapons systems. Powell insisted on Saturday, "The message I intend to convey to all the leaders with whom I meet and to the Arab public is that our problem is in Baghdad."
But after American and British air forces recently bombed air defense sites near Baghdad, many Arab leaders balked. The Palestinian Authority 's Voice of Palestine radio led the charge against the US action, calling for two "days of rage" to protest against "American-British aggression against Iraq."
Even as Powell arrived in the region, the PA reportedly helped stage violent pro-Iraq and anti-US incitement, with protesters burning American flags and photos of Powell and US President George W. Bush at large rallies in PA-ruled cities.
Last month, a senior PA delegation, including four cabinet ministers, visited Baghdad. Saddam has also played a large role in supporting the Palestinian uprising financially, offering close to US$1 billion to the Palestinians since the start of the uprising, including at least $10,000 to the family of each "martyr" killed in the violence.
The Bush team is concerned that the renewed Palestinian initfada could spark a regional conflagration, particularly given the current heightened tensions with Iraq. Such escalation would destabilize American allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia, and would threaten American interests.
There are also concerns that the PA may collapse if it cannot pay the salaries of some 120,000 police and other employees. US officials are apprehensive that a weakened or defunct PA could lead to increased competition between Iraq, Iran and Syria for influence among Palestinian elements.
After a meeting with Sharon on Sunday morning, it was clear that Powell was pressing Israel to lift what he called an economic "siege," including an entry ban on Palestinian workers. Powell said these restrictions do "nothing to quiet the security situation in the region." Powell also emphasized that the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the PA would only be possible if there was a renewal of economic activity in the Palestinian areas. The US has already asked Israel to release $54 million in tax rebates owed to the Palestinians, warning that the PA would collapse without the money.
"If people are not able to get to their jobs, they become more frustrated," Powell said later Sunday as he flew to Kuwait from Jordan. "Frustration leads to anger and then anger to violence."
But other comments by Powell and reports from the Sharon camp indicated more US understanding for Israel's policies. After meeting with Arafat on Sunday, Israeli Army radio quoted Powell as saying, "Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon showed openness and a willingness to leave his past behind, while PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is entrenched in stubborn positions and may not be doing everything possible to calm the situation."
A similar report came from REUTERS today. Powell portrayed Sharon as a thoughtful leader willing to put his past behind him and reach out to Palestinians to end a cycle of violence; Arafat, on the other hand, stuck to positions he has long held and may not be doing all he can to control the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
"I found him (Sharon) very reflective, very thoughtful, very engaged on the issue, and realizing the enormity of the problem that he has on his hands," Powell said late Sunday. "The prime minister-elect understands... that he has taken upon his shoulders great responsibility, not only for the people of Israel but the people of the region... He says he is going to reach out to the other side to get the violence down, which is really the sine qua non to moving forward," the secretary of state added.
Asked if Arafat was equally "open-minded," he said: "He held to positions he has held to all along. The conversation was brisk on a number of occasions. We had a good discussion."
Asked if he thought Arafat could control Palestinian violence that has raged over the past five months, Powell said: "Can he can control all of it? I don't know anybody can control all of it. The question is, is he exercising as much control as he can? That remains to be seen and we will only know the answer through what happens in the days ahead."
In a written statement today, Sharon said that Powell conveyed three Israeli demands to Arafat before the stern economic measures are eased: The PLO leader must make a public statement calling unequivocally for an end to violence; the PA must act to stop incitement; and security coordination must be renewed in the field.
"If this is carried out, Israel will be able to allow raw materials to pass and also some laborers into Israel," Sharon promised in the statement. Regarding the transfer of monies from Israel to the PA, Sharon said earlier that this would occur only after the violence has totally ended.
Powell began his stay in Israel by meeting with Barak, a close acquaintance, who took a hard line regarding Arafat. "The world must make it clear to Arafat that if he does not change his patterns of behavior, he will pay the price," Barak said afterwards. "Arafat refused to accept an agreement that was on the table and opted for violence; and he must know that this has a price and that he cannot hang around the reception rooms of the world's leaders and think that violence and terrorism pays off."
In a slight change of plans, Powell met with Arafat in Ramallah yesterday, as opposed to Gaza. The trip was Arafat's first foray into the "West Bank" since the beginning of the latest intifada. Even as they met in Ramallah, two Jewish settlers were injured in shootings only a few kilometers away. Palestinian officials had little to say about the outcome of the talks between Powell and Arafat, and were especially mum regarding Iraq. One PA source said the PA has decided to stay neutral for the time being.
Powell concluded the Israeli leg of his tour on Sunday with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. After passing through Amman, he took part today in festivities in Kuwait City celebrating the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
In a development related to the collapse of the Palestinian economy, the European Union has privately warned Arafat that it will reassess its future financial support for the PA unless progress is made toward peace, a senior European official told THE JERUSALEM POST. He said the EU - the most generous benefactor of the PA/PLO - had sent an ultimatum to Arafat. In another report, the LONDON GUARDIAN quoted EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten as warning that Europe's leading role in providing emergency loans and funding for the PA was nearing an end.
Nonetheless, the EU on Monday approved the payment of 60 million euros ($55 million) to help Arafat and the PA cope with the financial impact of Israeli security measures, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said. The EU demanded the Palestinians crackdown on corruption and introduce greater openness in their accounting, while appealing to Israel to ease economic restrictions. EU foreign ministers also called on the Palestinians to work with the EU and the International Monetary Fund to draw up an austerity budget that will make sure the money is put to good use, Fischer told reporters.
The Europeans also called for an international donor's conference where the 15-nation bloc wants wealthy Arab nations, the United States and others to shoulder a bigger share of the burden of helping the Palestinians. EU officials said the meeting would be held March 7, probably in Sweden or Norway.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.