Resist the interventionist impulse in the Middle East

The acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the cease-fire plan put forth by CIA Director George Tenet has strengthened the hands of those at home and abroad who are arguing that a more-energized diplomatic role by the United States could help end the violence in the Middle East.

American pundits and US allies hope the White House is abandoning its posture of "benign neglect" toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is ready to adopt the more central role that previous administrations had played in trying to make peace between Arabs and Jews. More specifically, they are urging Washington to press the Israelis and Palestinians to implement the recommendations of the international commission headed by former Sen. George Mitchell, which called for the introduction of "confidence building" steps - including a freeze on the building of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and an effort by Palestinian security forces to end anti-Israeli violence.

But the fact that both sides have accepted the conclusions of the Mitchell report, and may be willing to back a fragile cease-fire brokered by the United States, reflects nothing more than short-term tactics by Israeli and Palestinian officials hoping to win brownie points with Washington and the "international community." That the Israelis and Palestinians cannot reconcile their opposing views on what constitutes "peace," and continue to engage in acts of violence, highlights the wide divergence between the expectations for diplomatic momentum among "peace processing" experts in Washington and the harsh political realities in the Middle East. It demonstrates why the Bush administration should resist the pressure for a new American-led "peace initiative."

Indeed, the election of ultra-nationalist Ariel Sharon as prime minister and the growing militancy on the Palestinian side, where Yasser Arafat seems unwilling or unable to put an end to the intifada, have been clear indications that there is no political support among the leaders and the people involved in this bloody ethnic and religious war for the kind of confidence-building measures proposed by the Mitchell commission.

If anything, Mr. Sharon is intent on increasing the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. He is confident that Israel's military power will force the Palestinians to bow to its dictates and give up their demand for full independence. Meanwhile, Arafat is strengthening his alliance with radical Islamic fighters, and hoping the growing violence will trigger a dramatic international response that would leave Washington no choice but to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. Neither side will be willing to modify its position as long as it enjoys domestic support.

In that context, there is little that Washington could do to change these long-term strategic calculations. A new US effort to energize the "peace process" would only raise expectations among the Palestinians and the other Arabs that President Bush could compel Israel to end its settlement policy. But the pro-Israeli disposition in Washington coupled with a weak Arab diplomatic hand make that an unlikely scenario. And the image of a US administration unable to force a change in the repressive Israeli policies would damage America's position in the Arab world, and strengthen Sharon.

By resisting the interventionist urge and encouraging the "localization" of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the Bush administration will send a clear signal to the Palestinians that their only chance of winning political independence is through direct negotiations with the Israelis. Instead of complaining about US diplomatic passivity, Egypt, Jordan, and the European Union should use their power to persuade Arafat to end the violence.

At the same time, Mr. Bush could follow the footsteps of his father's administration by cutting economic aid to Israel by the amount of money it spends on the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He could make any continuing military aid to Israel conditional on its agreement to stop using American-made weapons against civilians in the occupied territories.

The task of advancing confidence-building measures should be left to the Israelis and Palestinians, and other players in the region. A successful outcome of such a process could encourage the United States to strengthen its diplomatic and economic ties with them. But Washington should not use its resources to promote such a strategy, so it will not have to pay the costs of its possible failure.

Leon Hadar is research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and former UN bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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