MAXWELL:  Snubbing Arafat was a bad idea

11/18/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


President George W. Bush can be trusted to drop bombs in Afghanistan, but he cannot be trusted to be a statesman when dealing with the delicate matter of personalties and politics in the Middle East.

Last Saturday, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He wanted to meet with Bush if for no other reason than to shake his hand during a diplomatic luncheon sponsored by Secretary Gen. Kofi Annan

That simple gesture, a handshake, would have shown that Bush at least acknowledged Arafat as the official leader of his people and that he understands the importance of messaging egos in the perpetually volatile Mideast.

But Bush did not shake Arafat’s hand.

The president snubbed Arafat. He did not acknowledge the man’s existence. Arafat was not asking for a state dinner at the White House. To add insult to injury, several other world leaders failed to persuade Bush to greet Arafat.

Bush’s action was wrongheaded. It was a big mistake _ a dangerous one given all that is at stake following Sept. 11. Angering and humiliating the Palestinian leader will not yield good results in the short or long run.

Why did Bush dis Arafat?

One reason, White House people say, is that Bush is upset with Arafat for not cracking down harder on Palestinian militant groups. Another reason for the snub, officials said, is that because Bush finally has called for the creation of a Palestinian state, the snub was intended to appease American Jews and Israelis who oppose a Palestinian state. In other words, Bush wanted to distance himself from Arafat.

Neither is a good reason to insult and humiliate Israel’s only partner in finding a solution to the insanity tearing apart the region.

On the other side, whenever Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon comes to the United States, he is ushered into the White House. He even gets an audience with Congress.

Has everyone forgotten that Sharon’s ill-timed trek to the Temple Mount last year initiated this round of carnage in Israel? History will show that Sharon’s was one of the worst political blunders committed in the region. For that blunder, he became Israel’s prime minister. He is scheduled to meet with Bush the first week in December. Arafat will have no such meeting. Again, we do not appear to be honest brokers in the peace process. We are showing blatant, destructive favoritism.

Recognizing the damage Bush had done, Annan sent Terje Larsen, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East, to Gaza to pacify Arafat. The United Nations does not need to be cleaning up behind the world’s most powerful leader.

On a related front, Secretary of State Colin Powell seems to be one of only a few people in the Bush administration who understands the utter anger of Arabs and Muslims toward the United States because of the Palestinian question.

During a recent interview with the New York Times, Powell argued that the peace process and the creation of a Palestinian must begin now. He said it was “essential to move quickly in order to jump-start the Palestinian economy again, let people get to work and remove the level of humiliation that exists in the region.” This mix of problems, Powell said, “adds to the anxiety and the aggressive activity and behavior on the part of so many people.”

Powell is preparing a major speech stating that Bush may be waking up and will begin taking a more active diplomatic role in seeking peace in the region.

Now, instead of rejecting former President Clinton’s direct role in negotiations, Bush may be modifying the hands-off stance he took during the campaign. Clinton was not afraid to fail. Bush may be ready to start taking a few chances in the search for peace. Powell’s speech will urge Israel to halt the building of settlements in Palestinian territory after a reasonable cooling-off period.

Meanwhile, someone needs to remind the president that military action is only one part of the war on terror. The other part _ the one that will yield dividends long after the bombing has stopped _ is understanding the thorny nature of personal politics in the Middle East.

The president ill-serves all parties involved when he chooses to snub the one person who can restart peace talks with Israel. And the United Nations should not have to apologize for the mistakes of the American president.