US finds Israeli-Palestinian conflict hard to avoid

Israel's army retreats from the Gaza Strip, one hour after a strong rebuke from the US.

Israel pulled its troops out of the Gaza Strip early yesterday, after a day-long incursion into the Palestinian-controlled territory provoked a stinging rebuke from the US.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had meant the coordinated air, land, and sea offensive to show that threats to Israel will be met with a steely response.

Instead, Israel's brief reoccupation and retreat has trained a glaring spotlight on the limits of Mr. Sharon's forceful approach. It also illustrates why the Bush administration's decision to reduce US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle may not work.

"I don't think [President Bush] is going to be able to stay removed," says Joseph Alpher, an independent Israeli strategic analyst. "Ultimately, the situation will drag the US in deeper. The international ramifications for unrest in the Middle East are too big."

The Bush administration has so far avoided the intense involvement in the peace process that characterized the final months of Bill Clinton's presidency. Bush's officials repeatedly stress that the two parties have to make peace themselves. They signaled their new approach early on by eliminating the position of "special Middle East envoy" held by Dennis Ross.

The new US team would prefer to concentrate on containing Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker is currently touring the Mideast to drum up support for the administration's "smart sanctions" plan against Iraq.

Yet events of the past few days show how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occupies a central place in the web of Middle East politics, and why the US may be forced to take on a more active role in managing that conflict.

One of Mr. Walker's most important stops will be in Damascus, which is developing warmer ties with Baghdad. Walker will try to convince President Bashar al-Assad to back a US plan to ease limits on nonmilitary exports to Iraq while tightening shipments of military goods.

Yet as he tries to do this, the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms. The new Syrian president is a strident critic of Israel. The close ties between the US and Israel will not make Walker's task easier.

Neither will an Israeli raid on a Syrian target deep inside Lebanon on Sunday. The strike, in response to an attack by the Syrian-backed guerrilla group Hizbullah, was a step up from previous Israeli responses, which hit either Hizbullah positions or Lebanese targets, and provoked angry words from Damascus.

The attack on the Syrian radar station and the foray into Gaza drew harsh condemnation from across the region, particularly from neighbors like Jordan and Egypt, who worry about the unrest spreading to their countries.

But the sharpest rebuke came from US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He called Israel's push into Gaza "excessive and disproportionate." Within an hour, Israel informed the US it would be pulling out.

Sharon initially dealt with Palestinians and Hizbullah much as his predecessor Ehud Barak did - using closures, curfews, and occasional helicopter strikes.

This week's aggressive moves against Gaza and Syria marked a clear military escalation, and matched public expectation of Sharon as a self-described "warrior." But the international and US condemnation - and the Israeli response - showed the limits of these strong-arm tactics.

Unless Sharon is prepared to alienate the international community and hand Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a public-relations coup, the prime minister will not be able to hit back as hard as he might like.

Even when Sharon does send in the big guns, Palestinian anger is such that it doesn't seem to make a difference. Hours after Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza yesterday, Palestinians launched three mortars at an Israeli settlement. An army spokesman said there were no injuries.

"What we're looking at is evidence that there's no military solution short of reoccupation and throwing Arafat out, and that would have disastrous implications for Israel's international standing," Alpher says.

Negotiations are the only answer, says Alpher. Yet in this sphere, too, Sharon has little room to work. In interviews last weekend, the prime minister stressed that he was not prepared to dismantle settlements - a major point of contention with Palestinians. It is a stance that appeals to his right-wing supporters, but is bound to anger the political left in his unity government.

But Sharon repeatedly says that he will not negotiate until the "Palestinian violence" stops.

"I think it will take a mutual announcement by both parties to say we are going to try it one more time," says Farouk El-Baz, a Mideast expert at Boston University. "In addition, Israel will have to stop over-reacting to the kids who are throwing stones. If there is no Israeli military presence, the rock throwing will stop."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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