Tags: Cheney's | Mideast | Trip | Humiliates | Powell | Arafat

Cheney's Mideast Trip Humiliates Powell, Arafat

Thursday, 07 February 2002 12:00 AM

Cheney's new initiative to the region, revealed Wednesday, appears already designed to intensify pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat rather than on the Israelis.

Administration officials say that Cheney will expressly not be meeting with Arafat and that he is not going out there to try to nail down any more agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

This is a stunning setback and repudiation, even humiliation, for the veteran Palestinian leader. He has repeatedly sought to get the United States to pressure Israel into refraining from tough retaliation for terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian suicide bombers and guerrilla groups.

But it is also a humiliation for Powell. Only two months ago, to much fanfare, he sent his own Middle East envoy, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, to the region to try to revive the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process." Zinni was the former chief of U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., which covered the entire Middle East and part of Central Asia. He had extensive personal ties to Arab and other Muslim leaders in the area, especially the Saudi royal family and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. And he was also personally close to Powell and his Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

By contrast, Zinni had no prior ties or contacts with Israeli leaders at all. His selection looked certain to renew intense U.S. diplomatic pressures on Israel and, in doing so, to assuage the concerns forcibly expressed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that the United States was giving Israel a free hand to crush the Palestinians.

But the terrorist suicide bomb attacks that killed almost 30 mainly young Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa on the weekend of Dec. 1-2 changed all that. Even Powell was shaken, and an outraged President Bush immediately tilted U.S. policy strongly back in favor of Israel, renewing the close ties that had existed before the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

Last month, that tilt grew even stronger when the Israeli navy intercepted a ship carrying a huge cache of weapons supplied by Iran that were meant to go to Arafat's forces in the territories controlled by his PA. That incident proved decisive in getting Bush to include Iran along with its long-mortal enemy Iraq and with North Korea as nations he dubbed an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech Jan. 29.

Meanwhile, Zinni's peace mission proved to be a futile bust. The only tangible results from it were an increase in Israeli civilian deaths from more suicide bomb attacks timed to take place whenever he was in the region.

And despite his prior lack of contact with Israelis, and highly successful personal diplomacy with major Arab leaders, Zinni was not impressed with Arafat, administration insiders say. The Israelis, by contrast, warmed to him.

Zinni, the sources said, was not convinced by Arafat's claims that he was unable to do anything to prevent the new terror attacks being launched. The tough, straight-shooting veteran combat soldier came to the conclusion, they said, that Arafat was not reliable.

On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, speaking at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had only warm praise for Zinni. "He did a wonderful job," he said.

But however wonderful the Israelis thought that job was, Bush apparently did not agree. There are no plans for Zinni to return to the region in the foreseeable future. Instead, it is Cheney who is being sent out.

Cheney, administration sources said, is far tougher on confronting the Palestinians, Iraq and Iran than Powell or Zinni. The vice president's own top Middle East analyst, John Hannah, is a former deputy director of Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, and Arab diplomats in Washington regard him as a tough hawk on these issues.

Also, although Cheney has kept a low public profile on Middle East issues, administration sources say he is strongly sympathetic to the positions of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,. Some sources went so far as to describe their positions on these matters as virtually identical.

Cheney's planned trip is also striking because it will be his first foreign trip since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Since then, he has functioned as a virtual "back-up emergency president in hiding" in case Bush and other top policymakers should fall victim to the same kind of terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Towers and mauled the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

The fact that Cheney is going to be diverted from that role to make this Middle East tour appears to highlight the exceptional importance that the president and his advisers put on it.

The trip is also striking for giving Cheney the most grueling schedule he has had, despite his history of heart troubles and surgery, since becoming vice president a year ago. He will be visiting eight Arab nations: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Obviously the trip must be of exceptional importance to the administration to subject the vice president to those physical pressures.

Unlike Powell, Cheney is not known for any diplomatic subtleties, a soft-spoken approach or charm in his political dealings. He is a tough, go-getting and deliberately abrasive figure.

Arab diplomats therefore fear that could mean his trip is intended to knock heads together and seek to pressure reluctant moderate Arab leaders to support U.S. military strikes against Iraq or Iran, or both, as well as to step up pressure on Arafat.

To an administration still riding high on the euphoria of its rapid and almost casualty-free military victory in Afghanistan, those initiatives may well appear attractive and timely, taking advantage of the current positive momentum.

But most, if not all, of the Arab leaders Cheney meets are unlikely to see it that way.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Cheney's new initiative to the region, revealed Wednesday, appears already designed to intensify pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat rather than on the Israelis. Administration officials say that Cheney will expressly not be meeting with Arafat and...
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Thursday, 07 February 2002 12:00 AM
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