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Powell Speech Plays Well in Israel, Despite Calls for Settlement Freeze

November 20, 2001
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Israeli officials generally are pleased with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s long-awaited address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which appeared to come down harder on the Palestinians than on Israel.

Government sources reacted with some gratification to the fact that Powell’s demands of the Palestinians were concrete and immediate, whereas the concessions he demanded of Israel were more vague.

That vagueness troubled Palestinian officials, though they chose to highlight Powell’s sympathetic treatment for Palestinian suffering and grievances.

To that extent, the speech can be said to have passed its first test: Each side both smiled and grumbled.

In an astute piece of parsing, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres noted Powell’s demand that the Palestinians “accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state,” code for a rejection of the “right” of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to homes they fled in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The more practical test of the speech’s effectiveness remains to be confronted. The new American envoy, ex-Marine Cmdr. Anthony Zinni, will arrive in the region soon after Thanksgiving, together with William Burns, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Powell noted that Zinni will “stay and work” until a cease-fire is secured.

The secretary avoided a potential stumbling block by making no direct reference to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s insistence on seven days without violence before implementation begins of the Mitchell Committee report, which recommended a series of confidence-building measures by each side.

Some Israelis felt Powell obliquely sided with the European Union — which flatly rejects Israel’s seven-day condition — when he described Zinni’s task as an “immediate mission.” In other words, the general is to get started on his talks without reference to the situation on the ground.

Yet Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said Powell understands Israel’s position that the week of quiet is an important test of Arafat’s commitment to peace.

“I think the Americans know that if Arafat can’t bring about a week of quiet, he can’t be depended on to bring a lifetime of peace,” Shoval said.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Monday that the level of Palestinian violence had dropped markedly over the past two weeks. He attributed much of this to operations by the Israel Defense Force, the Shin Bet security service and police rather than to Palestinian Authority efforts, which Israel continues to regard as inadequate and ineffective.

And the calm is highly relative. As Powell spoke, reports came in of a shooting ambush in the West Bank that left an Israeli girl badly wounded and two men in the same car less seriously hurt. The gunmen apparently escaped back to Palestinian-held territory.

The day before, a bomb was found as a high-level European Union delegation held meetings in the King David Hotel in downtown Jerusalem. It exploded as it was being defused, but did not injure anyone.

The IDF remains deployed on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Jenin. This is the last of six Palestinian cities that Israeli armor and infantry entered following the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi by a Palestinian squad Oct. 17 in Jerusalem.

In his meticulously crafted address, Powell made no bones about America’s insistence that Arafat get tough on terrorists.

“Israelis must be able to live their lives free from terror,” he said, and the Palestinians need to accept this. Arafat must make a “100 percent effort” against terror, Powell said, and must show “real results,” not just words.

Specifically, Powell said, the Palestinian Authority needs to “arrest, prosecute and punish perpetrators” of terrorism. It must “live up to the agreements” it has signed in this matter or “be held to account,” he said.

The more-than-yearlong Palestinian intifada, Powell warned, had become “mired in a quicksand of self-defeating terrorism.” However legitimate Palestinian claims and grievances might be, he said, they “cannot be heard” through violence.

Palestinians “must realize the terrible impact” that acts of terror have had on Israeli society and Israelis’ willingness to strive for peace, Powell said. Incitement and hatred in Arab media “must stop,” he added.

Yet Powell also used the powerful”must stop” phrase three times in relation to Israeli policy — the killing of “too many innocent Palestinians, including children,” “settlement activity” and the measures of Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For more than three decades, Israeli occupation has been “the defining reality” for the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, who suffer from “checkpoints, raids, indignities” and who have seen “their parents humiliated,” Powell said.

Israeli settlements, he went on, “severely undermine Palestinian trust and hope.” Settlement activity “preempts and prejudges the results of negotiations,” he said, adding that “settlement activity must stop” under the Mitchell Report.

This formulation was important: The Mitchell Report requires a freeze not only on new settlement building, to which Israel is committed, but even to “natural growth” of existing settlements, which many of Sharon’s political allies oppose.

Palestinian officials took heart from these comments, and official Palestinian media played them up, omitting virtually any reference to Powell’s demands on the Palestinian Authority.

“On a broad vision, the statement was good,” Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Nabil Sha’ath said. But he was disappointed that Powell avoided specifics.

“Without a time frame and monitors on the ground, this will allow for Israeli procrastination as usual,” Shaath said.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat complained that Powell “did not refer to the fact that we’ve made a lot of efforts, and failed to speak specifically in an evenhanded manner of the need for the Israelis to stop assassinations of Palestinian militants.”

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