In its first peacemaking foray into the Middle East, the Bush administration may have set itself a task that its predecessors have failed at for at least 20 years: convincing the Israelis to stop building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
A freeze on settlements is the most controversial recommendation of a US-led fact-finding committee, and it is emerging as the crux of the peace process outlined in the committee's report.
While the Israeli government has accepted the report in general terms, it has rejected an outright settlement freeze. The Palestinians have embraced the recommendations of the committee, led by former US Sen. George Mitchell, as a "package deal."
Even as he strongly endorsed the Mitchell report on Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell also took pains to suggest that there was no linkage between the report's central objective - a cessation of Israeli-Palestinian violence - and stopping the settlements.
Powell's words were music to the Israelis, who have been insisting on an end to violence before any resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. But Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinians' chief of preventive security in the West Bank, told reporters yesterday that: "The Israelis have no right to decide which aspect of the report ... to accept or reject."
Powell's diplomatic delicacy demonstrates the administration's apparent unwillingness to use more than gentle pressure on the Israelis, who have considerable political influence in the United States. His reticence may also reflect a central characteristic of the Bush team: a desire to make policy deliberately and avoid unnecessary boldness.
Mitchell and his fellow committee members envisage ending the violence by having the two sides return to existing peace agreements and resume joint efforts to control the security situation. These steps would be followed by measures designed to rebuild trust between the two sides, among them: the settlement freeze, the Israelis' adoption of less lethal means of responding to Palestinian demonstrators, a "100 percent" effort by the Palestinian Authority "to prevent terrorist operations."
Powell repeatedly observed that the two sides had together approved the founding of the committee, at a meeting chaired by then-President Clinton in Egypt last October, and that their general acceptance of the report now meant they were under pressure to implement it. Powell offered US help in this regard, designating US Ambassador to Jordan William Burns as a de facto peace envoy. But analysts say this intervention is conservative.
"For now, Powell is doing the minimum possible to fend off international complaints about doing nothing," wrote columnist Hemi Shalev in yesterday's edition of Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper.
That may be because of "a feeling that the previous administration over-reached and is in part responsible for the current situation," says Robert Pelletreau, a former US diplomat long on Mideast experience. The Bush administration, he adds, "is not doing everything it could - it isn't jumping in with major purpose and energy."
The success of the administration's intervention, says Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "depends on whether the US is willing ... to work with the UN and the European Union to lean on Israel to stop settlements."
The US has been possessive about the conduct of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, partially in deference to Israeli wishes that only the Americans should mediate, but Powell seems supportive of a UN and European role. The EU, for instance, is moving ahead with a plan to impose tariffs on goods made in Israeli settlements.
During many years of negotiations, the Israelis and the Palestinians have characterized the settlements as a "final status" issue - something the two sides would tackle as part of the ultimate resolution of their differences. But with such a resolution receding into the future, the Palestinians want to see the settlements stopped. The Israeli activist group Peace Now reported over the weekend that 15 new "settlement sites" - many are adjuncts to existing communities, sometimes located several miles away - have been established since the Israeli elections in February. The coalition agreement that binds together Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government specifies that no new settlements will be established.
But Mr. Sharon has always had more to do with promoting the settlements than with curtailing them, despite international criticism. In 1982, two years after then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had said that "the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is ... contrary to international law and an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process," Sharon was part of a government that announced plans to increase the number of settlers to 100,000 by the end of the decade.
At the time of that announcement, the settler population was under 20,000; today it is around 200,000 in 144 locations, not counting 170,000 or so Israelis who live in parts of East Jerusalem that were seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Israeli objection to a freeze is based on the idea that the "natural growth" of the communities cannot be restricted. But as early as 1977, Sharon was explaining the creation of new settlements as "expansions" of existing communities - the same activity that Peace Now maintains is under way today.
"I'm sure that Powell is keenly aware of Washington's unbroken record of failure in getting anything more than a brief pause in settlement activity," says former US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy. "To have that action demanded and spotlighted by the Palestinians must give him the willies."
In recent polls, the majority of the Israeli public has shown a willingness to freeze the settlements in exchange for an end to the current violence, but the right-wing voters and politicians who support Sharon are doubtless not part of this majority.
As Murphy notes, "The pressure to stop [or] pause in settlement expansion must come from within the Israeli body politic."