A Palestinian Question: Where Has America Gone?

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King Solomon, legend has it, died while leaning on his cane — but nobody noticed until a thousand years later, when termites finally ate their way through the cane and the dead monarch crumpled to the floor. Like Solomon, the Bush Administration's Middle East peace policy is dead, but nobody has noticed except the Palestinians.

America has abandoned the role of honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, leaving Israel with no restraints on its actions, and the Palestinians with no faith that diplomacy can change their situation. The resulting collapse of any kind of peace process will benefit neither Israel nor the Palestinians. If things are allowed to remain as they are now, the hostility between the two peoples will soon pass a point of no return, leaving them ensnared in a grim story of blood and bitterness for the foreseeable future.

Although the death of U.S. peacemaking has never been announced and Washington continues to talk as if it active in promoting a solution, the Palestinians, more than anyone else, have been both witness and victim of its demise.

The Palestinians ask: Who in the Bush Administration is in charge of Palestinian affairs? Is it the U.S. ambassador in Tel-Aviv? Or perhaps the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem? Some say the State Department handles Palestinian affairs out of Washington. Perhaps it is David Welsh, the State Department envoy and a frequent visitor to the region. Others, of a conspiratorial bent, say it's done by the CIA, the U.S. military attache in Tel-Aviv or by General Dayton, the security coordinator between Palestinians and Israelis. For Palestinians, this absence of a clearly identified U.S. authority is bewildering. Palestinian officials see no coordination between these different American entities; they are not even sure to which address to direct their concerns. Compared with the 1990s, when Washington seemed ready to manage Israeli-Palestinian relations down to the finest detail, the Palestinians today have reason to feel abandoned.

Most Palestinian officials I talk with believe that the Bush Administration is no longer trying to lead a peace process, but is simply reacting — often haphazardly — to events. Most Palestinians consider Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas politically na´ve for believing that the U.S. intends to help him and his people. And they believe Washington is na´ve for believing that the Palestinian people will follow Abbas and the people around him, and turn away from Hamas under U.S. pressure.

The U.S. sanctions imposed on the Palestinians after Hamas was voted into power have seriously undermined the credibility of Washington's claim to be promoting democracy in this part of the world. Instead of trying to come to terms with the reasons why the Palestinians voted for Hamas, Washington rushed to the old methods of shoring up the power of the leaders preferred by America. But anyone familiar with what Israel, with U.S. backing, is doing in the West Bank and Gaza will see Palestinian support for Hamas as a natural reaction. The belief that Palestinian minds will be changed by increasing their suffering through a financial blockade is a pipe dream. Yet that appears to be the focus of U.S. policy towards the Palestinians now.

It's not simply their own plight that leads the Palestinians to conclude that the U.S. has no policy. "Look at Iraq," says a former Palestinian cabinet minister. "Thousands of working papers were written, and thousands of hours were invested in building capacity, and what was the result?"

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted that the U.S. made "thousands of mistakes" in Iraq. But here in the region, there's little sign that the Americans have learned from those mistakes and tried to correct them. There is a widespread view in these parts that the Bush Administration pushed the Israelis to go to war against Hizballah even though the Israelis were clearly not prepared for the campaign. The result, of course, was that Hizballah and its allies have been strengthened politically, while the U.S. and its supporters in the region have been weakened.

For the most part, however, the sense in the Arab world is that the U.S. is simply absent. And when the cat's away, the mice — in this case, the likes of Syria and Iran — will play.

It took the builders of Solomon's temple a thousand years to notice that the king had died. But time is rapidly running out for the Bush Administration to resume the traditional U.S. role of referee in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Washington fails to show up, the states and peoples of the Middle East will be left to find their own solutions — and, as we well know, that will mean many more years of violent chaos.