Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Powell’s Middle East Speech: A Scorecard

Filed under: U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 10    November 21, 2001

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s much-anticipated unveiling of America’s vision for the Middle East (University of Louisville, Nov. 19) nudged U.S. policy in a positive direction in certain respects, but is unlikely to meet the expectations which preceded it. The speech will not placate the rage of the Arab street, which has already been significantly quieted as a result of the emerging American victory against the Taliban. As long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refuses to make the strategic decision to halt his year-long armed offensive against Israel, the prospects for diplomatic progress are not great. In this sense, the initiative was probably premature; nonetheless, its content deserves careful analysis.

The Positive Elements

  • Importance of regional climate: Powell began by describing his pride in participating in the liberation of Kuwait, and in the Madrid conference that same year that “took advantage of the opportunity created by the successful war.” At the same time he admitted that “the hope created at Madrid has faded” and stated that the U.S. is now trying to renew the “spirit of Madrid.” The lesson left unsaid is that the positive climate of 1991 must be restored, which means defeating states that support terrorism. Those who claim that the peace process must be pursued to defang radicalism have it backwards; it is a positive regional climate, created by winning wars, that is a prerequisite to a productive peace process.

  • Madrid and Resolution 242 trump Oslo and Camp David: By emphasizing the Madrid conference and UN Security Council Resolution 242 and using them as his primary benchmarks, Powell clearly deemphasized the Oslo Accords, the 2000 Camp David summit, and the Taba follow-on talks. This is a healthy, back-to-basics approach, and implies a rejection of the idea that the parties were one more Israeli concession away from a viable peace agreement.

  • Mitchell sequence left intact: Despite widespread reports to the contrary, Powell did not contradict Israel’s demand for one terror-free week before negotiations begin. Though he did not endorse this demand, he clearly rejected the Palestinian idea that Israel should negotiate under fire. As Powell put it: “Palestinians need to understand that however legitimate their claims, they cannot be heard, let alone addressed, through violence…terror and violence must stop and stop now.”

  • Results, not promises: “The Palestinian leadership must make a 100 percent effort to end violence and terror. There must be real results, not just words and declarations. Terrorists must be stopped before they act. The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts…live up to the agreements they have made…[and be] held to account when they do not.” Significantly, Powell implicitly rejects European efforts to define Arafat’s intifada violence as something different from terrorism. This clear language holds Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to a high results-based standard, and implies that if he fails he will not only gain no diplomatic benefit, he will find himself on the wrong side of the post-September 11 divide.

The Negative Elements

  • Misguided conception: The overall conception of the speech, which was in the works before September 11, was to mollify demands from Europe and the Arab world that the U.S. was not sufficiently “engaged” in pressing peace on Israel and the Palestinians. The premise here is that hatred of America can be reduced and cooperation of Arab states in the war on terrorism can be increased by exhibiting a willingness to pressure Israel through a peace process.

    In reality, the cooperation of Arab states in the war on terrorism is a function of U.S. seriousness and resolve. As Daniel Pipes has pointed out (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 21), the governments in China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all moved more forcefully against Islamic militants only after the fall of Kabul. Former Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk notes that the widespread protests throughout the Arab world started with the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan but began disappearing as victories against the Taliban mounted.

    The attempt to indulge Arab demands to pressure Israel opens up a “Pandora’s box” of endless diplomatic demands for the U.S. with respect to Israel. These “grievances” are a bottomless pit, for they will never be satisfied by the typical diplomatic movement that characterizes the peace process. As Fareed Zakaria writes (Newsweek, Oct. 15), “we cannot offer the Arab world support for its solution [to its problem with Israel] — the extinction of the state. We cannot in any way weaken our commitment to the existence and the health of Israel.”

  • Evenhandedness: A related weakness of the speech was its continuation of the “arbitrary evenhandedness” that Powell pledged to end. Powell bent over backwards to at least sound equally critical of Israel and the Palestinians, and place the burden of reaching peace equally on “both sides.” Such evenhandedness blurs the distinction between terrorism and self-defense, and completely ignores the fact that Israel offered to “end the occupation” at Camp David, and was not only rebuffed but met with violence and terrorism.

    By ignoring the enormous “risks for peace” Israel has taken, partly at U.S. urging, Powell signals to Israelis that any concessions Israel makes will only increase, rather than decrease, the pressure from the international community. By the same token, the Palestinians would naturally understand that the way to escape pressure to compromise is to become more intransigent and violent, as happened after the 2000 Camp David summit.

    Structurally, the speech equated the expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank and Gaza territories with Palestinian terrorism, despite the fact that the former is permitted by the Oslo Accords, while the latter is a gross violation of their letter and spirit. Essentially, Israel is asked to make new concessions that go beyond the Oslo Agreements in order to gain Palestinian compliance with PLO obligations within Oslo.

  • What does Israel gain tangibly?: The positive elements for Israel in the Powell speech are chiefly procedural. The Palestinians, in contrast, make tangible gains in substance: a “viable” Palestinian state. Past secretaries of state at least offered Israel assurances on borders: thus Secretary of State George Shultz (Sept. 16, 1988): “Israel will never negotiate from or return to the lines of partition or to the 1967 borders.” Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Jan. 17, 1997): “I would like to reiterate our position that Israel is entitled to secure and defensible borders, which should be directly negotiated and agreed with its neighbors.”

    But Powell grants “secure and recognized borders” evenhandedly to both Israel and Palestine. In reality, it is Israel that has historically been threatened by 21 Arab states: the Palestinians are not threatened by 21 Jewish states, so that Powell’s symmetry is divorced from the strategic fundamentals of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The statement about accepting “the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state” was an appreciated gesture to Israel. However, this position was essentially put forward in the past when the U.S. supported the creation of a Jewish state at the United Nations in 1947, with the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181.

    Finally, Powell adopts language of parity about Jerusalem, since he insists that the “religious and political concerns of both sides be part of any solution.” Other Bush Administration spokesmen, like U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, avoided this detail by restating simply that the Jerusalem issue needs to be resolved directly by the parties.

  • Whither political reform?: It is incongruous, to say the least, that the words “freedom” and “democracy” would be completely absent from an American vision for the Arab world. Powell praised Israel’s democracy, but for the Arabs spoke coyly of the need for “the rule of law” and the “politics of participation.”

    To emphasize the Palestinian issue while downplaying the political decay in the Arab world is to engage in distractions rather than the heart of the matter. “If there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism,” Zakaria continues, “it is the total failure of political institutions of the Arab world.”

  • Unwarranted expectations: The present focus on the Palestinian issue appears to be unwarranted for another reason. The declaration of a new American peace initiative implies that Israel and the Palestinians are ripe for a diplomatic breakthrough. Powell himself stated a day after his Louisville address, “We have a new opportunity before us” regarding the peace process. Yet is this elevation of expectations appropriate? Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker, until recently State’s leading Middle East authority, stated (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 17), “I have concluded that Arafat will not make peace because he doesn’t have a vision to lead his people to peace.” Indeed, during 2001, Palestinian positions on the peace process have discernibly hardened; Palestinian National Council Chairman Salim Za’anun announced that the PLO Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction remains in force. And Yasser Arafat’s own spokesmen speak openly about replacing Israel with a democratic Palestinian state (Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 1, No. 2).

Powell’s Mideast vision, despite some positive elements, poses certain difficulties. Its inherent optimism is divorced from the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations today. Its symmetric criticism of Israel and the Palestinians is counterproductive, for the critique of Israel undercuts the hard message Powell intends to deliver to the Palestinian side. Powell’s main mistake is to ignore his own lesson from the Madrid Conference by acting as if reinvigorating the peace process is a component of the war on terrorism, rather than a potential fruit of victory in that war. Accordingly, Powell’s initiative should have been undertaken only after Yasser Arafat ended support for terrorism and met the standards set by President Bush for membership in the coalition against terrorism.