Finding America’s Voice in the Middle East

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell continues his special focus on the Middle East it is possible that his message, like that of the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni, may be lost. America is clearly turning up the volume with the presence of such high-level American officials in the region. The problem, however, is not one of amplification, but rather of credibility and clarity. Until America finds its own voice in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, it is unlikely that America’s voice will be heard or heeded in the Arab world.

Since the start of the recent hostilities back in September 2000, America’s central message has been “stop the violence.” Stopping the violence is key to America’s longstanding desire for peace and stability in the troubled region. Opinion polls in both the Palestinian and Israeli societies show a strong and consistent desire for peace. More compelling still is that both peoples want peace for the same reason, a better life for their children.

The problem is not that America’s message lacks merit, but rather that the U.S. lacks credibility. There is a mismatch between what America says and what America does. As the sole remaining superpower in the world, America’s words and actions are monitored closely by all nations. When America says it is against violence and then appears to condone the violence, America has a credibility problem.

Whether it is Palestinian violence or Israeli violence the result is the same, people are traumatized, hurt, and killed. To date, over 400 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians have died as a result of violence. With three times as many Palestinian deaths, it defies logic that Palestinian violence is the only violence in this two-sided conflict.

The high Palestinian death toll is more indicative of Israeli military superiority than an absence of Israeli violence. As Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out recently, failure to see the victims of the other side is symptomatic of the conflict. One might add that the failure to see the violence of both sides is equally symptomatic.

America’s message of “stop the violence” has been further eroded by lack of clarity, and some would say, political courage. The same level of clarity that the U.S. has been demanding of Arafat, and now other Arab leaders, has been missing from Bush’s own message.

The deliberate, targeted killing of women, children, and other noncombatants is strictly prohibited in the Quran, the Bible, and other sacred texts. As one Islamic scholar noted, no religion of any weight could sanction the taking of innocent lives. While the label of terrorism has become emotionally charged and highly political, the prohibition against killing civilians is a powerful message that would have little moral or religious grounds for contention.

If terrorism is universally condemned, resistance against oppression, even armed resistance, is an internationally recognized right. For American officials to call Israeli military actions defensive and label the Palestinians’ as irrational violence, misses the point. The Palestinian intifada, or national uprising, has not been without context or meaning but represents years of Israeli economic, political, and military control of a people who can no longer tolerate such control.

Hence, the repeated American demands of Arafat to “stop the violence” equates to calling on the Palestinian leader to stop the national uprising of his people against the Israeli occupation. No Palestinian leader, indeed no Arab leader, can demand this and remain in power. More poignantly, if the world’s superpower cannot make the distinction between terrorism and resistance, it is unlikely that a beleaguered leader under siege can either.

By failing to distinguish between resistance and terrorism, and instead, lumping them together under the rubric of violence, America has blurred what would otherwise be a powerfully strong message. Some in the region would prefer that the distinction not be made. However, America must make the distinction if its larger war on terrorism is to have any meaning.

Since September 11, countries around the globe have jumped on the war-against-terrorism bandwagon, Israel included. Sharon has likened Arafat to Osama bin Laden and the Palestinians to the Taliban. Every time Israeli spokespersons make this analogy, America’s own war on terrorism is questioned. If the U.S. is supporting Israel’s efforts to subdue an oppressed people in the name of terrorism, is the U.S. war on terrorism also an effort to silence other oppressed people? The power of Israel’s analogy is backfiring on the U.S. regional and global interests.

Against this backdrop, Secretary Powell’s words–and actions–will take on particular significance. America has lost its voice in the Middle East. However it is not because of the validity of what the U.S. has to say, but rather because its message has been diluted and its credibility questioned. It is time for America to find its own voice, again.