US tests the limits of its leverage in Mideast

Powell faces a difficult task in persuading the Israelis to withdraw and Palestinians to condemn terrorism.

The Bush administration's approach to the Israeli-Arab crisis has been a two-track proposition ever since its unveiling last week.

Track 1: Lean on the Israelis to withdraw from the Palestinian territories. Track 2: Ask moderate Arab states to condemn terrorism and pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to do the same.

But so far, the most striking aspect of this policy of dualism may be its lack of progress in either aspect. Israel's tentative moves toward withdrawal – pulling back from two towns while attacking another – as well as a rocky start for Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the region, show the limits of Washington's leverage.

The Arab world, in particular, now seems in a stronger position to exert pressure on Washington than the other way around.

"They may have more credible leverage over us," says Arab expert Michael Hudson of Georgetown University. "We're telling them we're in desperate straits, and they've got to help us out. But they're saying, 'Don't ask for help until you've helped us with our enraged public opinion.' "

Arabs' criteria

Indeed, Saudi and Egyptian leaders have apparently handed Mr. Powell a list of criteria that the United States must help to fulfill in order to have their support in the peace process.

Those include Israeli withdrawal, US monitors on the ground, and a recognition that Mr. Arafat is the main negotiator for the Palestinians. They also reject the sequential approach the US has taken on the peace process so far, and are demanding that Washington deal with security and political goals at the same time.

At his press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher yesterday, Powell appeared to agree on all four of these points, announcing, for instance, his intent to meet with Arafat later in the week and saying that the US "recognizes that the Palestinian people view Chairman Arafat as their leader."

The administration has been harsh in its criticism of Arafat and has even tried to encourage communication with other officials in the Palestinian Authority as a way to marginalize him. Powell seemed to move much closer to the Arab position when he said that after a cease-fire, he wants to move "immediately" into political discussions that include Palestinian statehood.

While the region looks to the US as the only outside power that can influence events on the ground, several factors are acting to curtail the amount of leverage the US can exercise at this moment in history. One is the fundamental nature of the latest clash – the Israelis and Palestinians are both focused on the immediate question of their very existence.

"When the two sides are engaged in a really vicious, intimate, short-term mode of thinking, they're not going to be thinking very much about reputational issues," says says Tamara Wittes, program director of the Middle East Institute here.

At the same time, fundamental questions critical to moving forward remain unanswered. For instance, do Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon really want a peace deal? Before he left, Powell himself set low expectations for his trip.

Stephen Cohen, at the Israeli Policy Forum in New York, says that because of the administration's late entry into the Arab-Israeli quagmire, it is just beginning to discover what kind of leverage it has. Certainly, it is greatest with the Israelis, America's longtime ally and No. 1 recipient of foreign aid.

According to Mr. Cohen and others, the most effective use of US influence at the moment is exactly what President Bush is doing – jawboning. With his stern statements of the past few days, Mr. Bush is working to influence public and elite opinion, and reinvigorating the debate within Israel and among the Arabs about what comes next.

"There is a new political will in the ballgame," says Cohen. The wills of Mr. Sharon and Arafat "have now been joined by the political will of George W., and that's not a small political will."

Time-buying moves?

It's large enough to push the Israelis back from two towns. But analysts agree that these are mainly time-buying moves by Sharon. Bush is still up against the same kind of forces at work during Israel's attack on Lebanon a decade ago.

"I'm very much reminded of the events in 1982, when a very friendly American president to Israel, Ronald Reagan, was quite surprised to learn that calling on the Israeli government when it was in the middle of conducting a military campaign, which had been long planned and was very strongly provoked, didn't get you very far," says Sam Lewis, who was the US ambassador to Israel at the time.

But analysts do not expect Bush to go beyond rhetorical pressure and actually curtail military or economic aid to Israel. That happened in 1991, when the elder President Bush delayed $10 billion in loan guarantees out of concern that Arabs would boycott a multilateral peace summit. The money was to be used to build housing for Russian émigrés in the Palestinian territories. The move provoked a fierce backlash from the pro-Israeli lobby and conservatives in the US.

Still, one new dynamic is driving US resolve: the potential for the Arab-Israeli conflict to undermine Bush's war on terrorism. One administration official urges patience as the White House feels its way through this situation.

"I'm not sure this is the moment from which to take the snapshot," the official says. "Everybody assumes that there are going to be reactions and responses in the next week or two."

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