Enough Evenhandedness

(March 26) - When US President George W. Bush took office, he inherited Bill Clinton's refusal to take sides regarding the Palestinian attack against Israel that began almost six months ago. In his speech to AIPAC last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell made an important baby step toward lifting this Clintonian fog of moral equivalence when he pledged not to "strive for some arbitrary measure of evenhandedness when responsibility is not evenly shared." Denying evenhandedness, however, is not the same as stopping to practice it, as Powell has shown in his own statements then and since.

Evenhandedness is so deeply ingrained as a way of relating to the current conflict that even Powell's pledge not to be evenhanded was itself infused with evenhandedness. As Powell explained to AIPAC, "The United States will not be silent. We will speak out if we hear words or see actions that contribute to confrontation or detract from the promise of negotiations." Whose words? Whose actions? Powell leaves these as open questions, as if there were a doubt which side has chosen confrontation and which side has wanted all along to return to the negotiating table.

The US is acting as if a microscope were needed to assign blame, when the Palestinians not only openly admit to have chosen violence over negotiations, but routinely proclaim their right to continue attacking Israel during negotiations. As the latest Israeli submission to the Mitchell Committee visiting Israel points out, the essence of the Palestinian argument is that "violence against Israel and Israelis is somehow explicable, understandable, legitimate.... There is no mistaking the message. The violence is part of an orchestrated policy of the Palestinian leadership. It will not stop until Israel gives in to Palestinian demands." The Bush administration, to its credit, is not buying this Palestinian logic, in that it agrees with Israel's demand not to negotiate under fire.

Powell's latest caveat, that violence need not drop to zero before negotiations begin, is tempered by the statement that it is the parties (i.e. Israel) that will decide when violence has dropped sufficiently to warrant negotiations.

The US has also pointedly not invited Yasser Arafat to Washington and will only do so, according to Powell "in an appropriate way and an appropriate time." It would be useful if the US said why Arafat was not being invited, but actions can speak as loud as words, and the contrast between the warm welcome to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the implicit snub to Arafat is an important and positive action.

On the rhetorical level, however, the supposed new opposition to evenhandedness has not been evident. On the same day as Powell's AIPAC speech, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stuck to classic evenhandedness: "The president would like to see an easing of [Israeli] economic pressure. The president would also like to make certain that the Palestinians take steps to end the violence." Why pretend these are independent variables? Why not say the truth - namely that the US expects that Israeli economic pressure will cease when the Palestinians cease attacking Israel?

The standard excuse for bending over backwards not to cast blame or acknowledge a cause and effect relationship between Palestinian attacks and Israel countermeasures is that the US must maintain its credibility in the region. The Palestinians, American diplomats point out, are already very upset that the US is not more critical of Israel. But the pursuit of "credibility" at the expense of being soft on aggression is a very poor trade.

Powell is right that the US should speak out against actions that "contribute to confrontation," but the strained attempt to criticize both sides contradicts such a policy. By refusing to blame the Palestinian leadership by name for violence it is proudly defending, the US is not gaining credibility, but prolonging the conflict.

What is the point of the US saying it is deeply committed to Israel's security, on the one hand, and criticizing every measure - even economic - that Israel takes to defend itself? Evenhandedness buys nothing in credibility. Either the US is for negotiations and against aggression or it is not. Trying to fudge on who wants to shoot and who wants to talk will not gain the US credibility, but will postpone an end to the current bloodshed.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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