Powell Seen Warning Sharon In Comments on Palestinians

By Ori Nir

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — A day before Israelis went to the polls to reelect Prime Minister Sharon, Secretary of State Colin Powell indirectly yet strongly criticized the Israeli leader for his vision of what a future Palestinian state should look like.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Powell said Monday: “We also have to say to our Israeli friends that you have to do more to deal with the humanitarian concerns of the Palestinian people, and you have to understand that a Palestinian state, when it’s created, must be a real state, not a phony state that’s diced into a 1,000 different pieces.”

Drawing applause from world leaders, Powell added: “That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on in the months ahead with the road map that’s been created.”

Powell’s statement came after a recent series of public remarks in which Sharon was critical of the road map and dismissive of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the diplomatic working group made up of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — as a mechanism for implementing it. It also came after statements Sharon made rejecting a settlement freeze during the negotiating process or the dismantling of settlements after its conclusion.

Most press reports on Powell’s speech focused on his remarks on Iraq, which were at its core. His unusually pointed comments on the future Palestinian state went almost unnoticed.

A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Powell’s reference to a “real” Palestinian state was directed both at Sharon and at Washington’s European allies, who are proposing the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. The message to Sharon, the official said, was that the administration is serious about establishing, at the end of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, a viable Palestinian state whose geography is not predetermined by proliferating Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. To the Europeans, the message was that Washington is not scheming with Sharon on an alternative plan to the road map, and will insist on Israel’s dismantling settlements as a part of a final agreement.

Another administration official said that although the message was not new or unusual, it was “stronger language than you usually get out of U.S. officials.” The strong language was a response to “getting banged on” by Europeans and Islamic leaders for allegedly acquiescing to Sharon’s dismissal of the road map and the quartet. The official said that the administration feels particular pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who appears eager to “burnish his bona fides in the Islamic world.”

Apparently addressing concerns that the Bush administration does not intend to enthusiastically implement the road map, Powell said in Davos: “With intensive effort by all, the creation of a democratic viable Palestine is possible in 2005. And the United States will be engaging fully in this prospect, in this effort, in the coming months and years.”

An administration official said that Powell’s remarks were a toughly worded version of a message that has been repeatedly conveyed in private to Sharon and his aides in past months. “It is not new; it just has never been publicly put in such terms,” said the official.

Powell may have been alluding to press reports that Sharon is preparing to map out his own view of how a Palestinian state would be laid out. According to recent press reports, that map creates a “transportation contiguity” instead of a “territorial contiguity,” with a web of bridges and tunnels linking Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that Powell’s language may have been aimed to be heard as Sharon savors a Likud victory in the elections. With the polls showing the results of Israel’s elections a done deal by the weekend, the speech may have been intended to influence what Sharon says and does after his victory, as he sets off to create a new government. Spiegel said that Powell’s statement “may be signaling that the administration has decided to move [toward the implementation of the road map] immediately, before a new government is formed,” and before a war with Iraq.

Other analysts agreed. Judith Kipper, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that the Bush administration means what it says when it indicates that it would strive for democratizing the Middle East after the Iraqi regime is changed, and for achieving a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I think Powell was demonstrating his frustrations, and he wants to be very clear that ‘we mean it,’ that Israel will have to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.”

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said “it is encouraging to hear the secretary of state talking like that and recognizing that there are some serious problems with what Sharon has in mind.” The dovish organization recently launched a campaign publicly urging the Bush administration to link Israel’s request for loan guarantees to a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

By contrast, Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that Powell “made a mistake” in characterizing the nature of the future Palestinian state, because doing so “clearly contradicted the president’s vision” of deferring the negotiations over the nature of the Palestinian state to the end of the process.

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