Sharon Should Have Said No To Powell

by | Aug 8, 2001

Earlier this year in April (2001), Secretary of State Colin Powell rebuked Israel for sending tanks and bulldozers into Gaza following Palestinian mortar attacks on the Israeli town of Sederot. “The Israeli response,” he said, “was excessive and disproportionate.” Of his own “Powell Doctrine,” which prescribes overwhelming force when there is a military objective to […]

Earlier this year in April (2001), Secretary of State Colin Powell rebuked Israel for sending tanks and bulldozers into Gaza following Palestinian mortar attacks on the Israeli town of Sederot. “The Israeli response,” he said, “was excessive and disproportionate.” Of his own “Powell Doctrine,” which prescribes overwhelming force when there is a military objective to be achieved, he made no mention. He was almost as reticent about the Palestinian violence that triggered the Israeli move, describing it merely as “provocative.” Would he be similarly understated, one wonders, if Mexican terrorists, abetted by the Mexican government, began shelling Laredo and El Paso?

What was “excessive and disproportionate” was Powell’s slap at Israel, not Israel’s attempt to protect Jewish communities from Arab artillery. Unlike the Palestinians attacking them, the Israelis did not aim their weapons at civilians or deliberately set out to shed as much blood as possible. They entered Gaza only to stop the shelling, and made it clear that they had no intention of reoccupying territory that has been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. If he had to say anything, Powell should have praised them for their restraint.

In any case, his slap had its effect: Within hours, Israel’s forces withdrew. Jerusalem claimed that the decision to retreat had been made before the US reprimand, but no one was fooled. Least of all Yasser Arafat, who understood that Washington had just given him a green light to keep trying to kill Jews.

Sure enough, the shelling resumed as soon as the Israelis were out. Early Wednesday morning, Palestinian mortars began hitting Israeli targets on both sides of the Green Line; two landed in the schoolyard at Nevei Dekalim, just before the children showed up for class. By mid-afternoon, Israeli tanks were back in Gaza, briefly, to demolish a Palestinian “police” station from which explosives were being fired. When that failed to stop the shelling, the tanks returned yet again on Saturday.

These hokey-pokey operations — you put your ground troops in, you pull your ground troops out — will do nothing to enhance Israel’s security, and less than nothing to deter Palestinian violence. As if to prove the point, a suicide bomber killed one Israeli and wounded 41 more in a rush-hour blast near Tel Aviv on Sunday morning.

Israelis overwhelmingly elected Ariel Sharon prime minister because he vowed to be tough: to shut down Arafat’s terror campaign and to rehabilitate Israel’s reputation for fearsomeness. If he were still the leader of the opposition, he would bellow with outrage at last week’s cave-in to Powell. His failure to insist on Israel’s right to protect its population from acts of war came across as a dismaying lack of backbone.

To be sure, no Israeli official wants to pick a fight with the United States. But Powell does not speak for all Americans. At times he doesn’t even speak for the Bush administration.

Powell’s call to continue the Clinton administration’s approach to North Korea, for example, was repudiated by President Bush. So was his pitch for easing the sanctions against. In other policy areas — China, Russia, missile defense — the administration is plainly divided between the accommodationist State Department and the conservative hawks led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Powell’s views on the Middle East may reflect conventional State Department wisdom. But it’s a safe bet that not everyone in the Bush inner circle shares them.

After all, the administration has already made it clear that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is not its top priority. Bill Clinton made a fetish of the “peace process,” but Bush, Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney understand that America’s real interests in the Middle East do not revolve around Israel’s borders or Arafat’s promises. Washington has more pressing concerns: hostile dictatorships, Islamist extremism, terrorism, threats to pro-Western governments, the danger of regional war.

Of all the nations in the Middle East, only Israel stands with America on each of those issues, just as it is the only one that shares America’s democratic values. Israel is such a key American ally because of its strategic importance to US security interests. That importance does not depend on Jerusalem’s consent to everything Washington says about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It *does* depend on Israel’s remaining a potent military power with a deterrent capacity feared by its enemies. And that in turn sometimes means saying no to the United States.

In 1948, David Ben Gurion resisted US pressure not to proclaim Israeli statehood. In 1967, Levi Eshkol, defying US wishes, launched a preemptive strike against Egypt. In 1981, Menachem Begin braved American fury to bomb the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak. In each case, saying no to Washington led to short-term tension in US-Israeli relations. Yet today even Washington would agree that in each case Israel was right.

What makes Israel so valuable to America and the free world is its steadfastness, its strength, and its readiness, when necessary, to stand alone. Colin Powell may not understand that. But shouldn’t Ariel Sharon?

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. This is an excerpt from his weekly newsletter, Arguable, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Arguable at no charge, click here.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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