US losing patience with Israeli hard line

During an intense few days of Middle East diplomacy, the US has turned up the pressure on Israel to strengthen a tenuous cease-fire with the Palestinians.

The US has also leaned on the Palestinians, but events this week in Washington and the Middle East suggest that the Americans are losing patience with the hard-line policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has generally subsided, but at least 15 people have been killed since the two sides agreed to a US-brokered cease-fire on June 13. Yesterday, a Palestinian gunman killed one Israeli settler and wounded another in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers gravely injured a Palestinian worker in Gaza.

At the diplomatic level, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders remain at odds over how their truce is to evolve.

The current standoff is a classic "no, you first" tussle - except that what passes for stability in the Middle East hangs in the balance.

Both parties, along with the US and Europe, have signed onto a plan devised by a fact-finding committee led by former US Senator George Mitchell calling on Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting, rebuild mutual confidence, and resume negotiations on the main issues that divide them.

In Israeli eyes that formula means that a complete cessation of hostilities lasting 10 days should precede a cooling-off period of eight weeks, and "only after that" would the confidence-building measures come into play, says Dore Gold, a foreign policy adviser to the prime minister.

The Palestinians, however, argue that the Mitchell plan is a package deal, meaning that the confidence-building measures should come sooner rather than later. Indeed, the Mitchell committee's report characterizes a "meaningful cooling-off period" as one of several confidence-building measures - not something that should precede them.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "needs ... some reciprocation from Israel to suggest he's getting something out of" the cease-fire, says Ze'ev Maoz, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. Apart from Mr. Sharon and his aides, nearly everyone seems to agree that Mr. Arafat needs to have something to show for asking his people to accept a return to the negotiating table.

One key measure is the Mitchell committee's call for a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity. In a program initially promoted by Sharon, Israelis have built some 150 communities on Palestinian land seized by their forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. Many experts consider the settlements illegal, citing UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention, but Israel disagrees.

So the pressure may be building on the Israelis to come up with a settlement freeze or at least to alter their notion of what the timeline should be for engaging in confidence-building measures.

The problem for Sharon is that he has endlessly argued that Israel should not be expected to negotiate under fire. He has also refused an outright settlement freeze, but Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been endeavoring to find a compromise acceptable to both his boss and the Palestinians.

The matter is political for Sharon, since right-wingers in his coalition might bolt if he agrees to a freeze. That would make him more dependent on coalition members from the more dovish Labor Party, which might in turn weaken his position within his own Likud bloc.

The issue is also personal, since Sharon has been an ardent promoter and protector of settlements. His most vociferous critics today are settlers who say he is already not doing enough to protect them.

This week the Israeli premier has encountered a new source of criticism: the US administration. The US stands alone in the world in its capacity to pressure the Israelis, who rely heavily on US military aid and political support.

President Bush, facing reporters alongside Sharon at the White House on Wednesday, chose to highlight the progress made in the cease-fire, halting though it is, rather than agreeing with Sharon's insistence on a complete halt to violence.

Despite this "impression of discord," in the words of Sharon adviser Gold, Israeli officials insist that their meetings with the president and his aides were more fruitful. "I think they fully understand our position," Gold says, but he declined to say whether Israel and the US had come to any agreements on the matters before them.

Later Wednesday, during a stopover in Egypt, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a comment that appeared to favor the Israelis. "[A]t the end of the day it is the parties that will have to decide whether there is an adequate level of quiet and lack of violence in order to move forward," Mr. Powell said. "That leader is Prime Minister Sharon."

Then yesterday, Powell switched back, emerging from a meeting with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah to offer the strongest US support voiced so far for a key Palestinian demand: international observers to monitor the cease-fire. The Israelis are opposed to what they see as an intrusion into their affairs, and the US thus far has backed Israel's position.

No longer, apparently. "I think as we get into the confidence-building measures, the confidence-building phase, there will be a need for monitors, observers, to see what is happening on the ground, to serve as interlocutors to go to points of friction and make an independent observation of what has happened," Powell said.

After an earlier meeting with Foreign Minister Peres, Powell also warned against any stalling tactics: "[W]e can't use extended periods of time as a basis for delay, or not getting to what we're all after, which is final status negotiations in the final phase."

Powell delivered all of his comments in an atmosphere of diplomatic bonhomie, but both Israeli and Palestinian analysts detect a change in the US approach, one that ends up favoring the Palestinian position.

"The American position isn't so much a shift but a realization of how difficult it is to impose a cease-fire in a situation where the Palestinian Authority has unleashed so many devils over the past nine months that to put them back in the box all at once is virtually impossible," says Professor Maoz.

"It seems that the Americans are understanding the need to work on all issues together to ensure some success," echoes Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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