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Stay the Course, Mr. President

President Bush’s heretofore steadfast message to Yasir Arafat – that the Palestinian leaders’ abandonment of the peace table in favor of the battlefield will not be rewarded – is consistent with what we continue to believe is the only road to peace.

It is only when the Palestinian leadership finally realizes that political gain will not come through the barrel of a gun, but through direct dealing with Israel, that an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians is possible.

If Arafat and company are in any way encouraged to believe that, as was the case during the Clinton years, violence ultimately leads to greater Israeli concessions, and the United States will as a result pressure Israel with proposals of its own, no peaceful resolution will ever be possible. Thus, in recent months, it has become critical that there be no compromise on the idea that an unconditional cessation of violence is the absolute precondition to a resumption of negotiations and that the U.S. will not become a party to any negotiations without said preconditions.

Despite Arafat’s persistent effort to trade an end to the violence for a settlement freeze and to draw the United States into an active role, the Bush administration resisted any such linkage or involvement. Unfortunately, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments at Monday’s press conference on the Mitchell Report seems to signal a retreat from this principled position.

To be sure, the Secretary was careful not to link the settlement issue to the cessation of violence. Thus, while he referred to a settlement freeze as a ‘key issue’ in future peace efforts, he spoke of it as a ‘confidence-building’ measure and specifically separated it from the necessity for an end to violence:

Unless there is some progress on that one [i.e., settlements], then it is going to be very, very difficult to see how we get into a cooling-off period and a process that leads to negotiations.

It is not linked, however, to ending the violence. We should end the violence, and none of the confidence-building measures or all the confidence-building measures together are not linked to ending the violence. It’s a very clear sequence in my mind.

But by speaking of the two in the same context, and by his embracing of the Mitchell Report’s similar approach, Secretary Powell sends the inevitable message that as far as the United States is concerned, if Arafat ends the violence he can now expect that at some point in the near future a settlement freeze will be put in place.

Moreover, Secretary Powell has also appointed a special representative to mediate between the two sides and to facilitate implementation of the recommendations of the Mitchell Report. Plainly, this entails U.S. proposals and an inevitable selling job. The distinction between this and Clintonian ‘pressure’ is hard to fathom.

Nor are the settlements the only substantive issue at stake here. What of the Palestinian demand for the right of repatriation of refugees? Or final borders? Or the militarization of the West Bank? Why will Arafat not believe that he retains a battlefield option regarding them too?

In a rare display of candor, a high Palestinian official told it like it is to a New York Times reporter:

“Now it’s a finger-biting game between the Israelis and the Palestinian,” said Hassan Ayoub, director of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s executive committee office in Nablus. “The first one who says ouch is the one who loses. And nobody’s going to say ouch no matter how bad it hurts.”

There should be no mistaking the fact that this is all part of a process. And Arafat is looking to see who will blink first. In the interests of peace, President Bush should pull the United States back from the dangerous road on which Secretary of State Powell has now embarked it.

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