Bush's Middle East Band-Aid

Israeli politicians and analysts say that the U.S.'s sudden involvement is cosmetic and only designed to pave the way for an attack on Iraq.

By Aluf Benn

Published March 22, 2002 8:23PM (EST)

The Bush administration's decision to take a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict faces serious obstacles, both in the short and long term. In the short term, the latest Palestinian terror attacks have threatened U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni's efforts to prod the two sides toward a cease-fire. In the long term, the United States appears to have no vision of how to achieve Mideast peace, beyond vague promises of a Palestinian state and a firm commitment to Israel's security. Indeed, most observers here, Israelis and Palestinians alike, believe that Bush's sudden interest in the region has far more to do with preparing the way for an attack on Iraq than with any genuine attempt to resolve the deadly impasse.

Zinni's two earlier trips ended in failure, when upsurges in violence -- for which each side blamed the other -- wrecked negotiations. On Thursday, Zinni might have felt like he was caught in a time warp. The negotiations between the two sides were tough, with Israelis presenting a list of security demands while their rivals asked for a firm commitment on ending the occupation. But early Thursday, an Israeli security official said the two sides were close to an agreement on a cease-fire: "The only possible stumbling block might be another wave of suicide attacks." A few hours later, a suicide bomber blew himself up in central Jerusalem, at the same corner where many attacks had taken place before, killing two and wounding dozens of passersby. This happened about 32 hours after a bus bombing killed seven Israelis.

Few of those familiar with the grim logic that governs the protracted semi-war were surprised by the terror attacks. Militant Palestinians had made it clear that after Israel's massive military incursion into the refugee camps -- which drew a harsh rebuke from U.N. head Kofi Annan -- they would strike back. Arafat condemned the Jerusalem bombing. But Marwan Bargouti, the most prominent Fatah figure in the West Bank, blamed America's pro-Israel tilt, saying the attack was a response to Zinni's support for the Israeli line in the security talks.

The attacks have not derailed negotiations yet, but they led the United States to once again turn up the heat on Arafat. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, sitting side by side at the Oval Office, demanded that Arafat take concrete steps to stop terrorism, not merely promise to do so. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Arafat and told him he must act. Whether Israel and the U.S. would allow Arafat to travel to next week's Arab Summit in Beirut was thrown into question -- especially since the Al Aqsa faction of Fatah, Arafat's own organization, took responsibility for the Jerusalem attack (which led the State Department to include it on its list of terrorist organizations).

In response to the Jerusalem attack, Sharon suspended the cease-fire talks and convened his inner cabinet to discuss Israeli reaction, after having refrained from retaliation for the bus attack on Wednesday. The inner cabinet decided not to retaliate to the attacks, so as to give Zinni's mission a chance. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Zinni that "the cease-fire could not be one-sided, and there are limits to our self-restraint." He also told Zinni of Bargouti's remarks. The American envoy said that he would continue with his mission for the time being, despite the setbacks.

American policy in the Middle East has taken a new direction in the past two weeks -- but how significant that change of course is remains to be seen. After more than a year of a hands-off, "let them bleed" approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration has stepped up its involvement, aiming to break the deadlock, halt the ever-growing body count, and achieve a viable cease-fire.

After months of managing the conflict from the safe distance of State Department briefings in Washington, American leaders and diplomats are now bordering on hyperactivity. Cheney toured the region and lent an attentive ear to the concerns of his Arab hosts, who told him that dealing with Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat is a far more urgent task than toppling Saddam Hussein. The United States sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397, embracing for the first time "a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine." And Bush dispatched Zinni back to the region with clear instructions and a stronger mandate to get both sides on the truce wagon.

Tactically, the White House ended months of visible tilt toward the Israeli side, taking a more balanced approach. Bush publicly criticized the Israeli military invasion of Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Cheney, who had excluded Arafat from his original itinerary -- infuriating the Palestinians -- ended up negotiating a complicated deal by which he would return to the region next week especially to meet Arafat, thus bailing him out of his virtual house arrest in the occupied territories and allowing him to attend the Arab summit in Beirut next Wednesday, where his participation is seen as crucial if the Saudi peace initiative is to move forward. The high-level meeting, the first of its kind during the Bush administration, is pending on Zinni's vouching for the Palestinian leader's good behavior.

Sensing the change in Washington, Sharon had waived some of his earlier demands, like the insistence on "seven quiet days" before any negotiations. Under more American pressure he withdrew the Israeli forces from Palestinian-controlled areas. These decisions caused an extreme right-wing party to bolt from his shaky coalition, making the Israeli prime minister even more dependent politically on his moderate partners from the Labor Party, foreign minister Shimon Peres and Ben-Eliezer.

Two questions arise out of the diplomatic flurry: What caused the shift in American policy, and where is Washington really heading? Has Bush decided to revive the stalled peace process and aim for "ending the conflict" like his failed predecessor Bill Clinton? Or is the administration simply trying to shore up America's alliances with its Arab friends, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which were strained in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and prevent Arab rage over the Palestinian issue from destabilizing these strategically crucial regimes? The Saudis and Egyptians have for months been urgently asking Bush to intervene in the conflict and restrain Sharon.

The widespread view among Israeli officials and diplomats is that the new American involvement is cosmetic and should not be taken seriously. What the U.S. is really interested in, senior administration officials have confided to Israel, is a Saddam-removal operation, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is only significant insofar as it affects that.

"Nobody believes that we'll return to Camp David," an Israeli diplomat told me, referring to the failed peace talks between Clinton, Arafat and Barak. "They seek a political process, but not necessarily a political solution."

Israelis see the Republicans as a bunch of coldhearted power players, lacking the idealistic peacemaking delusions of the Democrats. Hence their preference for "regional stability" over photo-ops, signing ceremonies and Nobel Prizes. The recent deeper American involvement notwithstanding, there are no signs of a profound change in the administration's priorities. All indications are that Bush is aiming at violence reduction and resumption of some political process between Israel and the Palestinians, but not much more. Of course, whether "regional stability" can be attained without a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is an open question -- as is the possibility that such "stability" might be paid for by endless Israeli and Palestinian blood.

Cheney certainly offered no overarching vision for Mideast peace. He spoke in Jerusalem about a cease-fire and implementation of the two American plans for starting the peace process, the Tenet and Mitchell plans. The two plans offer a road map for ending the violence, restoring mutual confidence and returning to negotiations. The Tenet plan is a list of security demands on both sides, including a Palestinian dismantling of terror organizations and Israeli lifting of roadblocks and sanctions. The Mitchell plan calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, which poses a major challenge for Sharon, whose political base is right-wingers opposed to all territorial concessions. Nevertheless, both American plans lack an agenda for the eventual peace negotiations.

Bush has committed himself to the vision of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation, and has embraced the Saudi formula of "full normalization for full withdrawal." But the current administration has never outlined the way to turn its vision into reality. It has refrained from giving any timetables and avoided discussing sensitive issues, such as the final borders of Palestine and Israel, the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee problem.

As for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, most Israeli politicians and bureaucrats believe "Gulf War 2" is just a matter of time and logistic preparation. Echoing Washington's official line, Sharon says the U.S. told him it has not decided what to do about Iraq. But he -- and a few others, including Cabinet members Dan Meridor and Ephraim Sneh -- is in the minority. Leading figures from across the political spectrum are convinced an attack is coming. Former prime minister and aspiring right-wing candidate Binyamin Netanyahu, his Labor successor Ehud Barak, the leader of the left-wing "peace coalition" Yossi Beilin, defense minister Ben Eliezer and the outgoing ambassador to Washington David Ivry (who 21 years ago commanded the Israeli air force in its successful bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osiraq), all share this view. The military intelligence assessment, presented last Wednesday to the Israeli security Cabinet, concurred.

The message Bush sent to Sharon was clear. America is seeking to oust Saddam and change the regional power balance in America's and Israel's favor: Israel's role in the game is to behave itself and avoid being seen in Washington as a hurdle on the way to Baghdad. Sharon understood what was expected of him, but escalating terror attacks in late February and early March made him forget the lesson and overplay his military card.

According to a classified diplomatic report, the "breaking point" that caused American attitudes to change was Sharon's declaration on March 4 that the Palestinians should be "hit hard with many casualties" so they would beg for a cease-fire. The warning was followed with bloody "search and destroy" operations deep in the West Bank and Gaza that killed over 200 Palestinians. "Sharon's threats had a very negative effect in Washington," said the classified report, "and reinforced the perception that Sharon has no plan beside using force and more force. The refugee camp operations were seen as a military success, but as a total failure in every other aspect."

A senior Israeli diplomat in Washington cabled Jerusalem last week, criticizing his government's position. Analyzing the change in American stance toward Israel, he wrote, "The Bush administration seems to understand our constraints, and cannot understand why we cannot understand its constraints." The massive use of force was seen as folly even by those in the heart of Israel's security establishment. Avi Dichter, head of the Security Service (Shin Beth), told Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, "The aggressive military operations posed some threat to terrorists, but have also stimulated more terror attacks."

The late prime minister and military chief Yitzhak Rabin once explained that in a Middle East war, where decisive victories are seldom achieved, the first side to call for a cease-fire is the loser. Sharon was Rabin's longtime disciple and friend, but this time he failed the test and blinked first. Less than two weeks after boasting at the Knesset cafeteria that he was going to smash the Palestinians until they cried uncle, Sharon was the one asking for American help and saying that an immediate cease-fire was Israel's prime interest. The Palestinians felt they won the round -- that America, which had previously insisted that terrorist attacks were deal-breakers, had implicitly accepted their argument that attacks were inevitable until political progress was made. This was a bitter pill even for some dovish Israelis: Even Peres said that the Cheney meeting was "too much reward" for Arafat.

Last Tuesday, the "quartet" of regional peace messengers met Foreign Minister Peres for dinner at a diplomatic residence in Hertzliya. General Zinni headed the group, which includes the U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larssen, Miguel Moratinos of the E.U. and the Russian Andrei Vodovin. The guests exchanged views on the situation. Most of them, including Peres, emphasized the need for a serious "political horizon" to stabilize the cease-fire and to serve as an incentive for the Palestinian side to halt terrorism. Zinni told the guests that he understood their concerns, but his focus now was on implementing the Tenet plan and making sure that both sides fulfilled their commitments.

Zinni's immediate concern is to get Arafat on the plane to meet Cheney next Monday in Egypt, en route to the Arab summit in Beirut. To pay for his ticket, Arafat was told he must abide by Cheney's dictated terms. He has to declare a cease-fire in Arabic, to his own people, and issue clear instructions to his security organs to enforce the cease-fire and start implementing the Tenet plan. Sharon agreed to this formula somewhat reluctantly, saving face by threatening to block Arafat's return to the territories if terror attacks continue in his absence, and if his address in Beirut amounts to "incitement" in Israeli eyes. True to form, Sharon concluded the deal with Cheney in private last Monday night, and the next day he presented his ministers with a fait accompli. Sharon said he saw the Cheney and Zinni trips as "Arafat's last chance"; he expected the Americans to issue an ultimatum to his old nemesis.

Zinni has spent the last few days working late, shuttling between Sharon and Arafat and convening Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs to discuss an agreed sequence for implementing Tenet. But even if he succeeds, the future looks gloomy. The Palestinians demand a timetable for political negotiations on final-status issues. Sharon has agreed to revive the "senior committee" dealing with political issues, and appointed Peres to head it, ignoring criticism from the right. Peres sees his appointment as a mandate to negotiate the "political horizon" and even as a forerunner to an eventual Arafat-Sharon meeting, an idea rejected for now by the prime minister. Sharon continues to oppose negotiating a permanent status deal: he sticks to his idea of a long-term armistice, which would leave large "security zones" in the West Bank under Israeli control. Such a proposal is certain to be rejected by Palestinians, who walked away from a much better offer at Camp David. Yet for Sharon, even this offer puts him in political peril. Hosting Zinni last Thursday at his ranch, Sharon complained that his concessions have put him in a political minefield. "I don't even have a majority in my own Likud Party," he told the American emissary.

Considering these factors, it isn't surprising that Israeli intelligence holds out little hope for a long-term cease-fire. General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, the head of military intelligence, told the Cabinet that Arafat would stick to his dual use of terror and negotiations to achieve his political goal: a Palestinian state in all the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, control over the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) and implementation of the "right of return" for refugees. Intelligence officials predicted another year, at least, of armed conflict. Always the opponent of intelligence estimates, Peres argued that in a post-Sept. 11 world, Arafat would soon have to reject terrorism to survive politically, and Israel would have to forgo its occupation.

Time is a crucial factor in the Israeli internal debate. Peres told Sharon that their government has only seven or eight months of "quality political time" to reach a new deal with the Palestinians, before the country would be consumed by the next electoral campaign. The prime minister has yet to decide how to use that time. Should he go against his own history and ideology and try to cut a deal with Arafat? Or should he delay, meticulously negotiating each provision of the Mitchell plan and hoping for a relatively quiet period prior to elections? So far, Sharon has left both options open, but his political calendar is running out, as is his public approval rating.

American policy could prove decisive in influencing Sharon's decision-making process. And despite the general tendency of the Bush administration to be satisfied with a stable conflict that doesn't interfere with its Iraq preoccupation, there are some different voices. According to the classified diplomatic report, the State Department is arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian political process "should move very fast" as soon as a cease-fire is reached. State officials pin their hopes in the Saudi initiative, believing that its adoption at the Beirut summit next week would breathe new life into the peace process.

A more interesting clue, perhaps, came from the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer. Speaking last week at Tel Aviv University, Kurtzer, a veteran peacemaker, was asked about the Clinton plan of December 2000, which called for an Israeli withdrawal from virtually all the territories and the division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines. The former president took it off the table upon his departure from the White House and it is not an American policy, said the ambassador. But he added, "The Clinton ideas are worth studying, as they present a possible solution which both sides might achieve through negotiations." His listeners were left to wonder whether this was a private thought, or a hint from Washington.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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George W. Bush Middle East Terrorism