The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

European Response to Powell's Visit to the Middle East

Powell hugs Peres
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell embraces Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, April 11, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

As the crisis in the Middle East escalated to alarming levels at the beginning of April, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set off on what many media outlets began referring to as "Mission: Impossible." Seeking to kick-start the political track of the peace process or at least broker a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Powell delayed his arrival in Jerusalem as he attempted to shore up support for his efforts through diplomatic visits to Morocco, Spain, Egypt, and Jordan.

Looking on from the sidelines, the European press was divided in its expectations of Powell's success. Many papers saw the mission itself as grounds for optimism, particularly after what they felt was a laissez-faire attitude on Washington's part. "While Mr. Powell is starting late and in ill-starred circumstances," wrote London's liberal Guardian (April 11), "at least his mission has clearer aims than his earlier, half-hearted efforts. In short, the United States' political interest has finally caught up with the ever-present reality of U.S. geostrategic and economic interests."

Sounding a similar note, Berlin's centrist Tagesspiegel (April 10) wrote: "Bush's 'Enough is enough' was not directed at the Israelis but at himself: America has decided that it is time for her to end the conflict. These are the most promising words Bush has uttered for a long time."

For other commentators, doubt and distrust took the place of optimism, and Powell's stops along the road to Jerusalem signified that the Bush administration was in cahoots with Israel. "The feeble warning by George Bush that the army of occupation should withdraw straightaway, the official Israeli response that this would be done 'as far as possible' and the very tour by Secretary of State Powell through North Africa and Europe form a picture of a withdrawal delayed by mutual agreement, with a couple of bits of window-dressing," wrote the editors of centrist Madrid newspaper El Mundo (April 10). Likewise, Seumas Milne, writing in the April 11 edition of The Guardian, argued, "Both Sharon and Bush want to see the removal of the elected Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Nothing could have made the real U.S. attitude clearer than the Secretary of State Colin Powell's leisurely peregrinations across North Africa while Israeli forces have wreaked devastation in Jenin, Nablus, and Bethlehem."

Some newspapers, reacting to the European Parliament’s April 8 decision to ask the European Union to impose economic penalties on Israel, saw the efforts as futile: "The European Union is trapped like a wounded animal," read an April 10 editorial in Berlin's conservative Die Welt. "In the end, only the United States can break the circle of violence."

In an April 11 analysis of "European Feebleness," Nikolas Busse, writing for Frankfurt's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, faulted European leaders' approach to solving international conflicts for this perceived impotence. "There is a firm belief in most European capitals that every conflict in the world can be settled with goodwill, a lot of money, and even more treaties," Busse wrote. "This results in a foreign policy of nice words and good deeds that usually follows a single pattern: First, EU foreign ministers express their 'concern' at the latest source of trouble. Then they call on the United States to act because something bad has happened. Finally, after Washington has cleared away the debris, the relieved Europeans write a few checks for peacekeeping troops and other presents supposedly meant to civilize the evildoers."
Others saw hope in Powell's attempts to build a coalition as he headed toward the region. "It may be a positive sign that the most powerful in the world are closing ranks when it comes to the Middle East," Peter Meunch, of Munich's centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote on April 11, reacting to news of the April 10 meeting in Madrid between Powell, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and European Union representatives Javier Solana and Josep Pique. Yet Meunch cautioned that "The United States is on the wrong track if it continues to block pressure on Israel. And the Europeans are also in danger of disqualifying themselves as mediators if they direct their threatening measures and punishment too one-sidedly at the government in Jerusalem."

One of the few papers to applaud Powell's visits to Egypt and Jordan was the conservative Times of London. In an April 10 editorial, the Times’ editors opined, "Because there can be no serious doubt that Israel will bend to America's will…it has been right for General Powell to engage first with Arab leaders."

In general, though, the mood at editorial desks across Europe was bleak. "The hoped-for ending of the Israeli military offensive, launched on March 29, raises a dangerous specter over the visit of American Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region: The hypocritical illusion of a possible move backward to a time when soft approaches were possible," read the April 11 editorial in Paris's liberal Le Monde. Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, writing in Moscow's liberal weekly Moskovskiye Novosti (April 10), predicted that "in the near term, the United States will compel Israelis to retreat, but they won't do so for long. Hamas or other terrorists will certainly detonate new bombs, and the pogrom on the West Bank will be renewed."

However darkly its prospects were perceived, though, Powell's journey was widely seen both as an important piece of political symbolism and as a crucial test case for future involvement. "[Powell] is carrying a heavy burden," Süddeutsche Zeitung’s editors wrote. "He will learn how much clout his boss in Washington really has with the principal players in the Middle East."

"The question now is to what extent the United States is prepared to let itself be drawn into the area of tension," the editors of Belgium’s conservative Groot Bijgaarden De Standaard wrote on April 9. "Now that it has sent its highest-ranking diplomat to the scene, it will be hard to turn back."