For a time this week I was "embedded" in Secretary of State Colin Powell's office at the State Department. I use the media-military term of the moment because as war is being waged in Iraq, Powell is planning some campaigns of his own. One of them -- maybe the most important -- is to take the Israelis and the Palestinians and knock their heads together. It's about time.
The Bush administration is already on record as favoring the creation of a Palestinian state. It is already on record as demanding that Israel cease building West Bank settlements -- and dismantle some existing ones. It is on record for doing all the right things. Trouble is, it has done none of them.
The failure to deal forthrightly and, in the argot of Washington, robustly with Ariel Sharon and his right-wing government has cost America plenty in the Middle East. The United States is seen as unabashedly in Sharon's corner, which in fact it has been. Only recently has the administration said it is serious about getting -- "imposing" is probably the better word -- a plan to end the incessant violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Before the Israelis and the Palestinians can get their act together, however, the Bush administration will have to do the same. At the moment, the State Department, which used to conduct American foreign policy, has been outgunned by the Pentagon, the National Security Council (now with Elliott Abrams) and Dick Cheney, a vice president with very strong views about the Middle East. Suffice it to call them pro-Sharon.
For this reason, a certain amount of skepticism is in order. So I asked Powell who besides him in the administration favored a plan that would mean going to the mat with Sharon. "The president," he responded quickly. I asked if he was certain of that.
"Yeah, I just left him 30 minutes ago and we talked about it," Powell said. "Because I know what some people in the administration think. I also know that there are some, not in the administration but outside, who are saying that he [Bush] wouldn't have done this but for Tony Blair. . . . But he understands that the whole world is going to be looking to him to do something about the Middle East once Iraq has been dealt with."
The plan is referred to as the "road map," and it asks a lot of both parties. The Palestinians would have to end terrorism -- a course already advocated by the new Palestinian prime minister, a moderate named Mahmoud Abbas.
Still, Yasser Arafat remains the effective head of state and in charge of "national security." Whether he can or will crack down on Hamas and other terrorist outfits remains to be seen. Even with the best of intentions -- and who knows Arafat's intentions? -- the Palestinian Authority may now have been so weakened that its wish will be nobody's command.
As for Sharon, it's questionable whether his right-wing coalition will even consider the emotional issue of dismantling settlements -- or even if Sharon himself would want to. The Israeli leader is a truculent sort who is not given to understatement. After Bush invited Arab and Muslim nations to join the United States in the war against terrorism, Sharon likened that to "the dreadful mistake of 1938" when Czechoslovakia was thrown to Nazi Germany -- in other words, appeasement. Sharon apologized -- but it was the statement, not the apology, that came from his heart.
In the Arab world, not to mention Europe, the settlements are representative of alleged Israeli oppression and belligerence. Some of this rhetoric is overheated and tinged with anti-Semitism, but there is no doubt that the seizure of Arab land and the creeping enlargement of Israel into an area forbidden by international law is winning the Jewish state few friends -- not that it had all that many to begin with.
Powell is determined to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to where they once were -- oh so close to an agreement. But Sharon is sure to stall, issuing excuse after excuse as he eyes America's political calendar. As the presidential election nears, it could be Karl Rove as much as Colin Powell who will be making Middle East policy.
The longer the plan is delayed, the less likely it will succeed. Powell, after all, may not stick around for a second term. Given the makeup of Bush's inner circle, his successor might be someone even to the right of Sharon.
So it is up to Bush to put his money where his mouth has been. If Powell is going to be able to crack heads in the Middle East, Bush must first crack heads in his own administration.