Powell's Trial Balloon
Building on an idea from Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Colin Powell went on Arab television last week to launch a trial balloon.
Speaking of "a Palestinian state called Palestine," he said "it may be necessary to have a provisional state, an interim step. . . . something that we can create that is, that can be called a state." This was followed by a six-column headline: "Bush Is Said to Tell Saudis He Will Offer Plan for Creation of a Palestinian State."
But when asked about this notion of recognizing a state on West Bank and Gaza land now occupied by Palestinian forces unwilling to control suicide bombers, President Bush's press secretary said only "the president receives advice all the time."
Here's my advice: Don't step into this trap. It's a lose-lose idea.
1. Statehood, even if qualified as provisional or interim, confers a degree of sovereignty. That means control of borders, the ability to make treaties, and to import arms from Iraq and by sea from Iran.
2. Partial statehood would give Arafat control of an airport. A plane loaded with fuel or explosives could hit a major Tel Aviv building within three minutes, too quickly for Israeli jets to scramble. Ritual condemnation would follow.
3. Any form of statehood would limit Israel's ability to search out bomb factories and arrest terrorist leaders. What is now a tolerable sweep into disputed territory would be denounced in the U.N. as invasion pure and simple. That would trigger European economic boycotts and draw Arab allies into a wider war.
Why, then, offer Arafat's autocracy this pre-emptive prize? State Department Arabists claim it would show "movement" away from solid Bush support for Israel and, in the still-dovish Shimon Peres's phrase, offer a "political horizon" to Palestinians. But some of us see recognition of an unreformed P.L.O. as offering a taste of triumph to jihadists from Netanya to New York.
Nobody doubts that statehood will be part of an eventual settlement. That goal provides a powerful incentive for Palestinians to take command of their destiny. Responsible Palestinian leaders are less likely to fight a civil war being waged against them now by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad â€” whose stated goal is to drive Jews out of the Middle East.
What about Mubarak's "timetable" for full statehood, with a down payment of the 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza now under Palestinian control, including almost all the Arab population? That is similar to the territorial timetable dreamily agreed to at Oslo, which assumed that regular concessions of land would lead to mutual trust and peace. Instead, Israel's calibrated concessions led to Arafat's insatiable demands and ultimately to war. A timetable for a state of Palestine would become a deadline for Israeli negotiators.
Why didn't Ariel Sharon, last week in Washington, strongly and publicly oppose it? Maybe because he trusts Bush and underestimates Powell's media savvy; maybe Sharon did not want to appear to be following Likud's recent unequivocal lead against talk of statehood now. I reached him at his farm last night.
"The Bush administration knows very well our position," the prime minister said. "It is premature now until the full cessation of terror and its incitement, and until there is real reform. I was willing to discuss cease-fire under fire, but I cannot discuss political developments under fire. Many things must happen before that is discussed."
He wouldn't say what he told Bush on this, but his use of "premature" suggests that once violence subsides and a peace partner emerges, Sharon would be willing to tie the long-term interim agreements he seeks to interim or provisional forms of Palestinian sovereignty. I think statehood should be the deal-closer, and such salami slicing of statehood would be a mistake for the reasons enumerated above, but to strain an old metaphor, it's hard to be more Catholic than the pope.
A more truculent reaction to Powell's trial balloon of phased statehood comes from Saeb Erekat, Arafat's top negotiator, who demands all or nothing. What if the only statehood Bush offers leaves Israelis at checkpoints between Palestinian cities looking for suicide bombers? He told The New York Times: "I'm afraid that you're going to have a bigger explosion than you're having now."