The Problem With Shuttle Diplomacy

By William Raspberry

Monday, April 22, 2002; Page A19

The problem for Colin Powell, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was saying on the phone the other day, is that he didn't bring to his Middle East mission some of the elements necessary for success: clarity of purpose, clear instructions, sufficient leverage (sweetened with incentives) and enough credibility to persuade both sides to suspend their skepticism.

He's right on all counts, of course. But it strikes me that there was -- and is -- an even deeper problem. And that is a problem of whose interests Powell, as an emissary of President Bush, represents.

At one level, he represents America's interests in the world: our interest in peace, in stability, in having international acceptance of our authority as the world's military and moral superpower. Those interests dictate a careful evenhandedness.

At another level, though, Powell represents Bush's interests as chief politician of his party, interests that demand he not give serious offense to American Jews. Think of the careful way national politicians of both parties have dealt with the Cuba question -- not by a rational examination of the logic of our policy but by avoiding offense to the Miami Cubans, whose single-issue passion can turn an election.

But Jews in America aren't merely a potentially powerful opposition. Unlike the Miami Cubans, they are also a vital part of the warp and woof of the political fabric of the country. Moreover, Israel is -- for these reasons and others -- a peculiarly valuable American ally in the Middle East.

What all this adds up to is that America, whether through Powell or anyone else, is in a fundamentally conflicted position. The president and the secretary of state have tried to make the best of it, taking great care to chastise both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, urging the one to call off the suicide bombers and the other to withdraw his military forces. We keep trying to drive home the impossible notion that we are neutrals in this bloody conflict.

That's not an accusation; it is a description of a fact we have trouble seeing. Think of the supporter, equipment supplier, coach and fundraiser for one team reaching for the referee's striped shirt and whistle when the contest begins. It isn't a matter of the coach/referee's willingness to call the game fairly as he sees it; it's the fact that his interests as coach and as game official are intrinsically at odds.

What Powell and Bush want -- what America wants -- may truly be the best outcome for all involved. Indeed, except for the Palestine liberators on one side of the Middle East struggle and the send-the-Palestinians-to-Jordan zealots on the other, virtually the entire world wants what America wants: a secure Israel and a viable Palestine living in peace as good neighbors.

But if we want what the world wants, then why shouldn't the world trust us to do the right thing? The answer lies in the fact that we cannot get immediately to the right thing. There are steps to be taken along the way -- calming words, displays of good intentions, real concessions. America can no more broker that process fairly than the lawyer for an estranged wife can broker fairly the ex-husband's alimony payment.

What complicates the Middle East situation is that there seems to be no one else -- certainly no other country -- with the bona fides to oversee negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Powell trip, the presence in the region of special envoy Anthony Zinni and all the other public and behind-the-scenes American efforts to end the bloodshed, the terrorism and the humiliation in the Middle East suggest that America believes it has inherited the broker's role by default.

Well, maybe we ought to consider disclaiming the inheritance on the ground of irremediable conflict. There's nothing shameful in saying clearly what everybody already knows: Israel is our ally, Palestine isn't, and the fact that we deeply desire peace between the two doesn't change that fact.

Then maybe we would see the wisdom of handing off the broker's role to someone else: a United Nations commission independent of Washington, for example, with the power to negotiate concessions and enforce them.

We simply can't go on being both coach and referee.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company