Hawks Control U.S. Mideast Policy

The confusing signals coming out of the Bush administration on the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflect the latest struggle between the radical hawks -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney -- and the realpolitiks of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As in so many other major foreign-policy debates inside the administration, the radicals appear to be winning decisively, both because of the relative strengths of the major players and the effectiveness of a relentless media and pressure campaign waged by pro-Likud forces -- both within and outside the administration -- to tie Arafat to Bush's larger "war against terrorism."

For months, groups like the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have published, primarily through the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly, a steady drumbeat of articles attacking Arafat and his Arab allies, denigrating Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace proposals, and pressing the administration to avoid the temptation to rein in Sharon.

As Sharon's tanks launched their siege of Palestinian leader's Yasir Arafat's heaquarters in Ramallah last week,the Journal wrote,"The only exit now...is to let the two sides confront each other until they decide they have no choice but to talk again. This means letting Israel defend itself against the kind of terror that Mr. Bush would never tolerate if it took place in New York. If that includes the exile of Mr. Arafat, so be it."

While Bush has not yet endorsed Arafat's exile, virtually all of the administration's other actions appear consistent with the Journal's urgings.

The Bush administration -- apart from its apparently hypocritical vote in the U.N. Security Council early Saturday morning for a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from Ramallah -- stood firm against increasingly desperate appeals from Arab and European allies to intervene and refused to call on Israel to end its rapidly expanding military offensive in the Palestinian territories.

Bush himself has focused virtually entirely on Palestinian "terrorism" as the cause of the current crisis, adopting wholesale the viewpoint and rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Analysts, including many in the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), say Bush has ignored Sharon's own months-long record of provocation and over-reaction.

"Each period of Palestinian restraint was greeted with Israeli assassinations, home demolitions or incursions into Palestinian territory," wrote Jackson Diehl, a Mideast veteran in the Washington Post last week. "Each terrorist attack launched by Arafat's extremist rivals was answered by devastating Israeli assaults on Arafat's own security forces."

Indeed, as the Post observed Tuesday, five days into Israel's biggest military campaign on the West Bank since 1967, "the only daylight between American and Israeli positions appears to be over whether Arafat himself should be considered a terrorist."

While Sharon has denounced him as "an enemy of Israel (and) the entire free world," Bush continues to insist that Arafat remains the only Palestinian who can negotiate peace and stop the suicide bombing.

But Bush's concern for Arafat's welfare and status -- expressed in the U.N. vote, Cheney's highly conditional offer to meet Arafat last month,, and his much-touted appeal to Sharon to let the Palestinian leader attend last week's Arab League Summit in Beirut --- appears increasingly to be merely a public relations ploy for consumption by anxious foreign leaders who see Sharon's attempts to crush the Palestinian "terrorist infrastucture" as not only futile, but potentially explosive for regional stability.

The administration's actions have instead given Sharon an effective green light -- similar to the carte blanche issued twenty years ago by the Reagan administration to the then-defense minister Sharon, allowing him to invade Lebanon, going all the way into the suburbs of Beirut.

However even Reagan -- persuaded by Secretary of State George Shultz and other conservative Realpolitikers in his administration that Sharon's actions were risking Washington's strategic position in the Middle East -- eventually stepped in to prevent Sharon from going further. Bush, however, seems to be buying into the argument of the pro-Likud hawks who were spurned by Reagan.

Both Rumsfeld and Cheney, whose closest advisers have long been associated with pro-Likud views, have made clear their personal detestation of Arafat.

Cheney reportedly told Israel's visiting defense minister last month that he thought Arafat should be "hang(ed)," while Rumsfeld, appearing on a national television program in late December, endorsed Sharon's view that Arafat was a "terrorist" and went on to publicly attack him as having failed to "ever (deliver) anything for the Palestinian people throughout history."

At the same time, they and their pro-Likud allies in Congress and the media successfully pressed the State Department to take further steps to tie the Palestinians to Bush's wider, anti-terrorist agenda by listing Hamas and later Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which is loosely affiliated with Arafat's Fatah organisation, as terrorist groups.

Powell, on the other hand, has made his unhappiness with the drift of U.S. policy evident. Alone among top administration officials, he has urged restraint on Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Last Friday, when charged with publicly presenting Washington's position on Israel's offensive in Ramallah, the normally voluble and confident ex-general spoke from prepared notes and ended the session with reporters after taking only three questions.

His lack off enthusiasm provided an extraordinary contrast with Rumsfeld's Monday press conference when he flatly ruled out sending U.S. forces to help enforce a ceasefire between Palestinians and Israelis -- a strategy long-favoured by the State Department. Rumsfeld then went on to accuse Iran, Iraq and Syria of "inspiring and financing a culture of political murder and suicide bombing" in Israel.

His statements contained the most sweeping list of potential targets in Washington's anti-terror campaign since Bush named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in January. And the countries named corresponded almost precisely with a list of terrorist states included in a letter sent to Bush by three dozen prominent pro-Likud hawks -- many of them based at AEI and frequent writers for the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. The letter was sent last September 20, only nine days after the Sep 11 attacks against New York and Washington.

The same letter, written in the name of the Project for a New American Century, of which Rumsfeld and Cheney were charter members, called for Bush to cut off all support for Arafat and the Palestine Authority "until (it) moves against terror."

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