In the Middle East, Palestinians and Israelis are fighting a civil war. And what does the United States do? It bombs Iraq. As the brutal Israeli-Palestinian conflict further infuriates the Arab world, what does Secretary of State Colin Powell do? He arrives in the Middle East wait for it to "re-energise" sanctions against Iraq and re-forge the anti-Iraqi coalition that ceased to exist more than a decade ago. There's a story perhaps apocryphal that as the Red Army stormed into Berlin in 1945, German civil servants were still trying to calculate the Third Reich's paperclip ration for 1946. Mr Powell is now the paperclip man.
So it's relevant to ask some simple questions. Do the Americans realise the catastrophe that is about to overwhelm the region? Have they any idea of the elemental forces that may be unleashed in the coming months? Is Washington still so obsessed with "World Terror Inc" that it can forget the tragedy that is unfolding in the Middle East? Does Mr Powell really think his job is to restate as he did yesterday America's "rock solid" commitment to Israel.
Mr Powell has wisely abandoned that hoary old phrase, the "peace process". But he has apparently no idea what to put in its place. And what he was really confronting in the region at the weekend was a Middle East in which all the familiar "peace" keys have been thrown away. The Palestinian Authority is penniless and "ruling" if such a word still applies over anarchy. The Israelis have elected a prime minister who is regarded throughout the Arab world as a war criminal and who now demands an end to the "intifada" uprising which he himself provoked by marching to one of Islam's holiest shrines with an escort of a thousand policemen.
Israel wants security without a peace agreement. The Palestinians want an end to the very real Israeli occupation which the Israelis themselves refuse to admit exists. So what does Mr Powell do? He heads off to Yasser Arafat with a warning from Ehud Barak that if he "doesn't change his behaviour, he'd pay a price". Mr Powell has only been in office a few weeks and he's already carrying Israeli threats to an Arab leader.
But it's getting more serious than that. For there is occurring in the Middle East today a new and unprecedented phenomenon: the Arabs are no longer afraid. The regimes are as timid as ever but the Arabs as a people brutalised and crushed over decades by corrupt dictators are no longer running away. In Syria, the intellectuals are continuing their democratic debates despite threats from the state security apparatus. In Bahrain, the opposition are returning from exile to build a new and potentially democratic country. In "Palestine" and we'd better keep the quotation marks there the Palestinians no longer run away. They go on fighting and killing and dying. The old Sharon policy of beating the Arabs till they come to heel is now as bankrupt as the Palestinian Authority that is supposed to be controlling them.
And as the wreckage of the Oslo Agreement rusts away, the once-viable alternatives are slowly being dismissed. For years, critics of the Oslo Agreement pointed to the undeniable UN Security Council Resolution 242 which demands a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories occupied in 1967 (the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and east Jerusalem) in return for the security of all states in the area, including Israel. Oslo allowed Israel to renegotiate 242, to give back some occupied land but keep other territory for itself; which is why Oslo failed and why, ultimately, the second "intifada" broke out. Amid the carnage, Arafat began talking again about 242; so did Hanan Ashrawi and other sane Palestinians.
But now even this alternative is losing its appeal. More and more among Palestinians, you hear the words that so frighten Israelis; that they would like "all" of Palestine, not just the lands taken by Israel in 1967. In Gaza last autumn, I actually encountered this transition in progress. A Palestinian computer trainee began by telling me that 242 was the only path to peace. But by the end of his increasingly angry peroration, he began talking about Haifa and Acre and Ashkelon, cities which are in Israel, not in the notional "Palestine" which Arafat was prepared to accept.
Similarly, the "right of return". Throughout the seven years of Oslo negotiations, the "right" of the three-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands in what is now Israel was kept out of the debate. This, we were told, would be discussed in final status negotiations. The Palestinians suspected that the Israelis and the Americans intended to throw away this "right" at the end of the Oslo talks. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. You can see why the Israelis refused; three-and-a-half million more Palestinians living inside Israel would mean the effective end of the Jewish state. But for the Palestinians, the brisk shrugging off of this "sacred" right (enshrined in a General Assembly but not a binding Security Council resolution) was a grotesque trick. And now that Oslo has collapsed, the "right" of return has become more real, more palpable, more serious however unachievable in practice.
You can see this process at work along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier. Just last month, I sat watching a Palestinian refugee family from Sidon as they picnicked on the Lebanese side of the frontier. It was a balmy, soft day of brilliant sunshine and the mother and father and their children their family driven from Galilee in 1948 never took their eyes off the beautiful, wooded hills on the other side of the frontier wire. Since the end of Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, countless Palestinian families have been able to travel down to the border to look at these same hills. For the soldiers on the other side, it is Israel. But to the Palestinians rotting in Lebanon, it is Palestine. They can go and look at it. It is real.
Indeed the very Israeli retreat from Lebanon last year played a historic role in the changing perception of Arabs. The Hizbollah fought the occupation until the Israelis upped-sticks and ran. "Palestine" is not Lebanon. But the Palestinians learned a lesson. You don't have to be frightened of Israel any more.
We can be sure that Colin Powell will not be dwelling on such matters as he continues his three-day visit to the Middle East. He'll be talking about Israel's "security" and about the need to re-focus attention on Iraq. We'll hear again about Saddam's weapons of "mass destruction". And while we do, the chances of a real peace in the Middle East based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 a peace for Israel and a peace for a West Bank-Gaza Palestine will go on withering.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.