The US Mideast-policy whipsaw

The pressure rises on Bush to end Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Like so many American presidents before him, George W. Bush has now discovered the power of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to burst unwanted into the Oval Office and compel his attention.

Mr. Bush's dilemma is this: If he resists expending more time and energy searching for a solution to the spiral of violence, it will undermine the US position throughout the region. Angry Arab nations would likely spurn any requests for help in ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Yet at this point, it's not clear that more US involvement will make that much difference. Each side now has deeply entrenched positions that the other side finds unacceptable. Israel says it will not discuss a political settlement until bombings stop. Many Palestinians say they have no incentive to stop attacks until political negotiations begin.

Thus US rhetoric about the situation has veered back and forth in recent weeks, from urging freedom for Yasser Arafat to blaming the Palestinian leader for the increase in violence.

Officials say the administration is simply describing the situation as it sees it. Critics say the White House is still trying to figure out what to do.

"This administration is pursuing a particularly incoherent policy," says Michael Hudson, an Arab specialist at Georgetown University here.

When the Bush administration took office, its overriding priority in regard to the Middle East was to not be the Clinton administration, or at least to avoid what it saw as the Clinton administration's overly personal approach to peacemaking in the region.

Until virtually the end of his term in office, Bill Clinton invested much time and energy in an attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet his efforts were probably doomed from the start, according to the Bush team's worldview.

That is because all the US efforts to delineate what percentages of the West Bank would be turned over to Palestinians, and on what timetable, and so forth, were beside the point. The parties themselves needed to want peace, under the Bush view of the situation, and they didn't. The net result was an initial US period of uninvolvement with this volatile part of the Middle East.

With the events of Sept. 11, the region as a whole assumed central importance in US foreign policy. Yet as US forces pursued terrorists in Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian violence began rising toward catastrophic heights. The Bush administration confronted the old problem of the US dual approach to the Middle East: For decades it has been a staunch supporter of Israel, and at the same time allied with pro-Palestinian Arab states.

It's a policy that has often led to whipsaw positions and rhetoric – as has been amply demonstrated in recent days.

First, as Vice President Dick Cheney toured the region seeking support for US moves against Iraq, the US was depicting Israeli incursions into Palestinian-held territory as unhelpful. There was discussion if Mr. Cheney would return to the region to meet Arafat himself.

But as violence escalated, and Cheney returned home, the administration's statements have taken a noticeably different tone. The president himself seems to have largely accepted the Israeli formulation of the continued suicide bombing as terrorism against civilians of a nature similar to that of Sept. 11.

"There will never be peace so long as there is terror, and all of us must fight terror," said Bush yesterday. Now the administration is under concerted pressure to do more to help end the fighting. Critics at home and abroad say that only the US can help bridge the gap between the sides' mutually exclusive positions.

In particular, the US has to do something to get the Sharon government to see the link between land-for-peace discussions and an end to the violence, say critics.

Without that, the deep frustration in Palestinian society virtually ensures that suicide bombings will continue, say some. "You have to show them light at the end of the tunnel," says Mr. Hudson. "That there's an incentive."

Others say that all the process in the world cannot reconcile the divisions that remain between the warring parties – and that the US risks once again being drawn into a thankless middleman task.

At the same time, if the US itself were being attacked as Israel is, the citizenry would be demanding an end to the violence, above all else. "What more can be done other than to say the ... terrorism has to stop, and when it does then you can move on to the next steps?" asks Bernard Reich, a Mideast expert at George Washington University.

The administration may be moving slowly toward further involvement, knowing well that absent such movement, there will be no regional support for anti-Iraq moves. "It's a question of more passive or more active. I think [the administration] has moved from more passive to more active," says Wayne Owens, of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.

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