On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he was working tirelessly to persuade the Israelis to withdraw from Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town on the West Bank. On Thursday, Israeli tanks and troops pulled out -- prompting celebrations in the streets and raising hopes that security cooperation talks between the two sides will resume.
The two-day occupation of Beit Jalla was seen by many Middle East experts as the fuse that could have ignited an all-out war between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors. That is why the U.S. was urged by its European allies and by friendly Arab countries to get directly involved in negotiations to end the occupation.
Thursday's withdrawal clearly demonstrates the extent of U.S. influence in that part of the world and is justification for greater involvement in the peace process by the Bush administration. A plan developed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell still offers the best hope for a near-term solution to the Middle East crisis, and President Bush should strive to get the two sides to embrace it.
Blueprint: Indeed, the U.S. must not only play the role of mediator, but given the continuing bloodshed and the influence that extremists on both sides seem to be having on their leaders, it is necessary for the administration to provide a blueprint for a permanent peace.
George W. Bush's insistence that the U.S. is in no position to dictate to the Israelis or Palestinians rings hollow in light of this country's long-standing commitment to ending the violence in that part of the world and its willingness to serve as an honest broker in negotiations. The president's reluctance to exert the kind of pressure that comes with being the world's lone superpower is viewed as a failure of his foreign policy.
As France's foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, said recently in illustrating his country's anti-Israel bias, "We expected them [the United States] to become more involved, given their responsibilities and exceptional influence they wield on the protagonists in the conflict. Their wait-and-see policy risks making them look like Pontius Pilate."
Vedrine's statement in the French newspaper Le Figaro was quoted by the New York Times.
Criticism: The wait-and-see posture adopted by the Bush administration has also drawn criticism from the European nations that have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States. There is deep concern that without the direct involvement of the U.S., violence-prone factions will be undeterred in their desire to shed as much blood as possible.
It is time for Secretary of State Powell to become an active participant in the peace talks. His direct involvement in the Beit Jalla conflict shows what he is capable of accomplishing.