US mediators arrive in a doubting Mideast

Weekend attacks and retaliations between Israel and the Palestinians make Burns and Zinni's task today tougher.

JERUSALEM

As the Bush administration begins its most determined efforts so far to ease the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the strife between them is as grim as it has been in a long while.

While there is some hope that a peace mission beginning today led by former Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns may yield a cease-fire more durable than its predecessors, pessimism abounds. A common view is that the US is acting mainly in the service of its fight against terrorism, rather than out of a desire to stem the conflict.

The violent acts of the past few days have inflamed tempers. But even assuming that tempers cool, the underlying political realities on both sides don't seem to allow much room for diplomatic initiatives.

One factor is that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "does not have the capacity to enforce a cease-fire," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research in Ramallah. Another is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "is determined to crush Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," not make peace with them, Dr. Shikaki says.

Israeli officials deny any intention to dismantle the Palestinian Authority or to undermine Arafat, but they also consistently describe the Palestinian leader as the head of a "gang of terrorists."

It seems impossible for many people to imagine these two leaders ever making peace with each other. "How can you envision Sharon and Arafat signing something that is acceptable to both sides?" asks Emanuele Ottolenghi, a historian of Israel at Oxford, in light of Arafat's inability or unwillingness to reach an agreement last year with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose terms for peace were derided and attacked by Sharon as too generous.

In the near term, Shikaki and other Palestinian analysts have argued that Arafat is politically unable to compel or persuade Palestinians to renounce violence. Indeed, recent events have likely eroded that ability still further.

On Thursday morning, a remote-controlled Israeli explosive detonated along a well-trafficked path in the Gaza Strip, killing five Palestinian boys under the age of 15. Israel officials have said that their troops laid the explosive in order to strike at Palestinian militants who use the area to attack Israeli installations, and deny any intent to hurt noncombatants.

But the event is being portrayed in the Palestinian media as a "massacre" - and is exactly the sort of violence that redoubles Palestinian inclinations to war, not peace, with Israel.

On Friday, Israeli forces used helicopter-borne missiles to assassinate Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a leader of the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. The Israelis say Abu Hanoud was behind some of the most deadly suicide bombings of recent months, and they had long demanded that the Palestinians prevent him from engaging in terrorism.

The Palestinians released Abu Hanoud in May, when Israeli F-16 fighter jets bombed a police compound where he was being held prisoner.

His killing prompted angry avowals of revenge from Palestinians of various political persuasions. Hamas's militants went into action on Saturday, using mortars to shell soldiers guarding an Israeli settlement in Gaza. An Israeli reservist was killed, the first such fatality since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence 14 months ago.

Then came the reprisal, in which Israelis used helicopters and other armaments to attack Palestinian police facilities in Gaza early Sunday.

Despite the tensions raised by so much violence, officials on both sides have been sounding open to the prospect of renewed US intervention. Israelis and Palestinians alike welcomed a speech last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell that signalled a revival of US diplomatic activity.

"The sheer decision of the US administration to send a new team here, the novelty of the people on that team, plus the general support that this team enjoys globally are the keys to its potential success," says Daniel Sheck, a spokesman for Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

These factors, he suggests, may prove more significant that the current round of hostilities.

General Zinni formerly commanded the US military's Central Command, a geographic designation that includes most states in the Middle East, but not Israel. This experience makes him a known quantity to the US's Arab partners; his military background may help him deal with security officials on both sides.

Mr. Burns, the State Department official who oversees the Middle East, is an Arabic speaker well regarded in the Arab states.

Israeli media reports indicate some discomfiture with mediators who have extensive experience working with, in many cases, Israel's enemies. The Jerusalem Post on Friday quoted an unnamed "American Jewish official" as saying that Zinni "is a logical candidate if your purpose is to please Saudi Arabia."

There is a perception on both sides that the main impetus of this effort is to smooth the way for phase two of the US war against terrorism. Arab support will be more important than ever if President Bush decides to target Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a sponsor of terrorism.

Many of these Arab states have been complaining of US inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of Powell's speech, one such critic, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, told The New York Times that he was "very much encouraged by the administration's recent statements on the issue."

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