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U.S. Shuttle Diplomacy?

Why did the United States not resort to true shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East?

March 29, 2002

Why did the United States not resort to true shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East?

And yet, in the run-up to the Arab League summit in Beirut this week, one wonders whether the United States — which desires a role as an “honest broker” — should have resorted to a more basic kind of shuttle diplomacy.

Much of the talk in the run-up to the meeting was about whether or not Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would consent to letting Mr. Arafat travel to Beirut to attend the summit.

The real issue, of course, was less whether he was prepared to let him out — but rather whether he would have let him back in. After all, his compound in Ramallah is surrounded by Israeli troops.

Arafat would not have been helped much if he had been able to attend the Arab League summit — only to find himself exiled again from Palestinian territory.

This is precisely the point where the role of U.S. diplomacy would have come in. Throughout its own 200-year history, the United States has traditionally advocated openness and communications over lock-ups and a deafening diplomatic silence.

One wonders why these principles were not applied in the case of Arafat’s disputed participation in the Beirut summit.

After all, there is a great deal of frustration throughout the Arab world about what it considers a completely one-sided support of Israel by the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The summit this week would have provided an easy opportunity for the United States to show more balance.

How so? Simple. As the entire world is aware, the United States Air Force is a mighty military fighting machine. Rather than letting Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon go on with his very public display of disdain, the Bush Administration could have offered — in a similarly public manner — to fly Mr. Arafat (or even drive him) to Beirut — and to guarantee his right of return.

That would have been a powerful gesture — because it would have provided at least a modicum of balance to the present U.S. position.

Of course, such a move would have also raised the ire of some Israelis. But then again, it should be clear to all U.S. policymakers that no solution in the Middle East will ever be found without frustrating at least some Israelis at some point in time.

And who knows, perhaps Mr. Arafat would have turned down the U.S. offer — because he would not have wanted to have himself be seen as a (physical and temporary) protégé of the United States. In that case, the U.S. would at least have gained in the sense that it could have portrayed itself as being more balanced than it is widely perceived to be.

It’s too bad that the good old days of shuttle diplomacy are gone…

March 29, 2002