WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM — President Bush seemed poised early this week to put Palestinian statehood on the fast track. But by announcing a new policy of retaking Palestinian-controlled land in response to acts of terrorism, Israel appears to be changing the timetable if not the outcome of the Bush administration's efforts.
Taken after this week's devastating suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the Israeli policy might be seen as a natural outgrowth of a strategy set forth by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon since he took office in March 2001. But the announcement also throws a wrench in US plans to take a leading and very active role in developing a Palestinian state and move the two sides toward a peace accord.
As the suicide-bombing campaign of the second intifada has intensified, President Bush has repeated emphatically that "Israel has a right to defend herself." The question now is whether the US will accept Mr. Sharon's policy as a legitimate defense mea-sure. And if it does, will Palestinians and Arab states, with whom the Bush administration has been working closely to formulate a peace plan, see the US as siding too closely with Israel and retreating from what they had concluded was progress toward a more even-handed stance?
"The problem is that one man's defense is another man's offense," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan. "The president now has one more thing to decide, if this [Israeli move] actually helps Israel or does more to hurt the whole process in the long run."
Bush had been expected to give a major speech outlining what administration officials call a "playbook" for establishing a Palestinian state earlier this week. But the bombing and Israel's response yesterday Israeli tanks and troops reoccupied three West Bank cities were expected to put the speech off by at least a few days.
A central goal of US policy has been to end the violence that has gripped Israel and the Palestinian territories during the nearly two-year-old second intifada. But Bush faces a dilemma as he decides the hows and whens of a Palestinian state.
Israel and some of Bush's advisers argue that going too fast and setting timetables now for creating the state would reward terrorism and rely too heavily on a Palestinian Authority that cannot be trusted. The latest bombing appears to have bolstered those arguing that declaring an interim state as early as September is too risky.
But others argue that delaying a state only invites more violence by leaving Palestinians with little hope and by also suggesting to terrorists that their acts can work to sidetrack international initiatives.
"If I'm someone who wants no part of a US plan for the region or who wants to put off a US intervention in Iraq, then I want to keep this conflict going," says Mr. Korb. "Bush has to be careful not to act in a way that ends up encouraging those elements."
Although Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week the president's "consultations" on the issue of a Palestinian state were ending, this week's bombing and announced Israeli response has prolonged that period.
And once Bush makes his speech, his is also expected to announce he is sending Secretary Powell back to the region to do a little more explaining of new US policy.
Whether Israel's announced policy portends a total reoccupation of lands under Palestinian authority is a point of debate among Israeli analysts. The government's announcement, made Wednesday, took a "wait and see" tone.
"Israel will respond to acts of terror by capturing PA territory," the government statement said. "These areas will be held as long as terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the taking of additional areas."
It went on to say that if there are more attacks, "we will take more and more [territory] and it will lead wherever it may lead."
Analysts see Israel's latest statement not so much as a departure, but rather as a continuation and intensification of the government's policies of army incursions. Some, but by no means all, of those incursions are linked to specific Palestinian attacks.
"You can believe this statement because the government is at a dead end," says Reuven Pedatzur, a Tel Aviv University political scientist. "There are no new measures Israel can take, so the idea is to occupy and stay for a long, long time to control the area more effectively. If there is another big and destructive terrorist attack, that will provide an excuse for them to say that 'Unfortunately, we have to stay there.' "
Mr. Pedatzur went on to say that, Sharon "is now preparing the public for that kind of a step."
During Israel's six-week West Bank offensive, which began on March 29 after a spate of suicide bombings, the number of Palestinian attacks dropped markedly, but rose after forces withdrew.
Pedatzur sees reoccupation as a way for Sharon to avoid diplomacy and the territorial concessions it would entail. He proposes that Israel instead vacate a remote Jewish settlement to improve the atmosphere and give some prospect of diplomatic gain to the Palestinians.
Sharon has repeatedly ruled out dismantling settlements, arguing that even those in the Gaza Strip have strategic and historic value.
In the view of David Newman, a political geographer at Ben-Gurion University, reoccupying territories could backfire. "This would only create more suicide bombers, as Palestinians see that not only are they not getting a state, but even their small areas are getting eaten up."
Mr. Newman predicts, however, that there will be no overall reoccupation of the West Bank because the military itself realizes this is unworkable.
"It could mean a new Lebanon," he says, referring to the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew after incurring heavy casualties from Iranian-inspired Hizbullah guerrillas. "The soldiers would be sniped at, and would face explosions. They would be forced to focus on protecting themselves rather than controlling the Palestinian population."
Palestinian legislator Mohammed Hourani, a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, says Sharon has painstakingly made reoccupation acceptable to world opinion by steadily escalating Israeli military activity in the West Bank.
"The Israeli government is using actions like the [most recent bus bombing] in Jerusalem in order to implement a plan," Mr. Hourani says. "Now the idea is to move ahead and to reoccupy our cities. But this will just lead to an even higher level of violence. People will resist the army. And even if Israel tries to push Arafat out at the same time, it will solve nothing for them. All it will do is push both sides to more hate, and to more extremism."