US steps into Mideast, reluctantly

After Clinton failure, Bush administration operates with low expectations

As frequently occurs during crises in the Middle East, people are turning to the US – the global superpower and a longtime regional mediator – in search of help.

Despite a profound reluctance to become involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Bush administration has been drawn in by a conflict that consistently moves closer to all-out war. Succumbing to this vortex has entailed several reversals.

Last week President Bush shelved his oft-repeated "understanding" of Israel's actions in favor of a demand that the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abort a massive reoccupation of Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank. Despite a partial pullback in some West Bank towns yesterday, Israel's leader says the operation will continue until "the terrorist infrastructure" is dismantled.

After insisting for many months that Israelis and Palestinians had to demonstrate a willingness to make peace before the US would reengage, Mr. Bush has sent both special envoy Anthony Zinni and Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region in the midst of the worst violence in decades. Before leaving Washington on Sunday, Mr. Powell dampened expectations of achieving even a halt to the violence.

And after insisting for many months that a cease-fire had to precede any negotiations about a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the Bush administration hinted last week that political and security talks could proceed at the same time.

To understand why the administration has not wanted to address the Israeli-Palestinian debacle, say those who have tracked US policy, it is necessary to begin with first perceptions. Bush and his aides have seemed determined from the outset not to reprise former President Clinton's fruitless effort to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"There's some kind of judgment that [Mr. Bush] made early on," says William Quandt, a scholar of US presidential policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue, "that not being Clinton means not embracing [Yasser] Arafat."

Bush and his aides want to repair what they perceive as the damage to presidential prestige that Clinton's failed peacemaking efforts incurred, says a Western diplomat in the Middle East. Bush and his aides came into office viewing Mr. Arafat as someone, the diplomat says, "who stiffed the President of the United States."

But if the administration entered office handling the Middle East conflict with a ten-foot pole, its attempts to grapple with the issue have only added to the determination to keep its distance.

Despite Arafat's longstanding reputation for prevarication and for telling people what they wish to hear, the administration has shown a thin-skinned sensitivity to dealing with true-to-form behavior from the Palestinian Authority (PA) president. "I think they have no use for him," says the Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the top members of the Bush administration.

This official lists "managing and maybe helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict" as only the third most important US goal in the Middle East, after prosecuting the administration's "war on terrorism" and developing a strategy for addressing the root causes of anti-Western militancy.

The diplomat concedes that the US commitment to substantive peacemaking is uncertain. "I'm not sure the Bush administration has crossed the street into a dispute-resolution mode," he says.

Drawn to the region

The new administration did not hear encouraging news about the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the previous inhabitants of the White House, says Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet minister and frequent Arafat envoy to Washington. Mr. Shaath says he imagines that Clinton relayed the following advice to Bush: "I tried every trick in the book to make the peace process work, and it failed. Don't burn your fingers."

But the steadily worsening conflict drew Powell to the region just five months after Bush took office and brought about an early instance of Arafat-induced distress.

The trip, last June, yielded a US acquiescence to Mr. Sharon's demand that seven days of absolute calm precede the implementation of a cease-fire plan devised by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.

Although US officials say that Arafat also assented to this condition, the Palestinians say they only agreed that a seven-day clock should start with Powell's visit, regardless of what happened on the ground. Nonsense, says a Western observer with knowledge of the negotiations: "There was disingenuous behavior" on the part of the Palestinians; "there was not a misunderstanding."

In Washington, this observer adds, also speaking on condition of anonymity, the Palestinian insistence that Arafat had not agreed to the seven-day period of quiet "caused a lot of heartburn."

In the end, the "seven days of quiet" condition did much more harm than just sullying Arafat's standing with the administration. It is now widely acknowledged that it allowed Palestinian militants and Israeli hardliners to delay the two sides from implementing the Tenet plan. Early this March even Sharon backed away from the condition he once imposed.

Republicans pro-Arab?

As Bush came into office, Israeli officials had some concerns that a Republican administration might be more Arab-friendly and less pro-Israel than a Democratic president. Bush's father, after all, stands out among recent US presidents as the toughest on Israel, cutting loan guarantees in September, 1991 in order to pressure then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir freeze settlement construction and attend a post-Gulf War conference on Middle East peace.

The Powell trip demonstrated that Israel had no need to worry about Bush and his aides. "They had a very thorough perception of who was to blame here and about the situation," says a senior Israeli official, referring to Arafat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a sense, Shaath concurs, asserting that administration officials take "a cold look at the agonies of the Palestinian people."

The attacks of Sept. 11 have had a see-saw effect on the administration's view of Israel. It seemed at first that Bush's delineation of the world into two camps – those with the US, and those with terrorists – could only play to Israel's advantage. Then the need to win Arab support for the US war in Afghanistan acted as a counterweight, so much so that Sharon gave a speech last October accusing Washington of appeasement.

The speech so aggravated Washington that Sharon quickly apologized. Since then, the prime minister and his representatives have taken a different tack, insisting that Israel is under a terrorist assault, that Arafat is Israel's Osama bin Laden, and that suicide bombings are its ground zero.

In time, this rhetorical strategy and the success of the US war in Afghanistan, conducted without much help from the Arab states, have given Israel a net advantage in the aftermath of Sept. 11. As the Western diplomat puts it, referring to perceptions in Washington: "Palestinian activities are being more and more lumped into the terror area."

Shifting gears

Last November, the administration shifted gears. Following a speech by Sharon containing a reference to a Palestinian state, first Bush and then Powell referred publicly to the state of "Palestine." The Secretary of State also called for the end of Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian lands.

In both instances, the US was using language it has long shirked as too pro-Palestinian.

The words were intended to give Palestinians hope that by agreeing to a cease-fire, their dream of an independent state would soon come true. The US also designated former General Zinni as a Middle East peace envoy.

Zinni made two trips to the region in late 2001 and early 2002; both ended badly. His first foray, begun in late November 2001, was preceded by Israel's assassination of a senior militant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. The organization cited that killing as a pretext for a series of terrorist attacks on Israelis that torpedoed the envoy's attempts to work out a cease-fire.

While US officials in Washington have had an "intellectual" understanding that the assassination was provocative, says the Western diplomat, the bottom line for Bush was a sense of betrayal. "He certainly felt that Arafat had both not done enough to help the Zinni mission succeed and had probably actively undercut it."

Zinni's second visit came to a close shortly after Israel seized a ship with a hold full of weapons in the Red Sea. Israel asserted that the PA, with Iranian help, had obtained the weapons in order to further its campaign of violence. The PA immediately denied the claim.

Although the Western observer disputes Israeli assertions that the PA and Iran have engineered a partnership that could hurt US interests in the Middle East – "that is not borne out by the facts at all; a transaction does not a strategic alliance make" – there is no denying that the administration was dismayed and angered by the incident.

The Israelis were cheered when Arafat seemed to deepen the hole. "He had the temerity to write a letter to Bush denying any involvement," says the senior Israeli official. "When he realized the bad consequences of this, he had to write another letter to Powell, taking responsibility."

This official, who also agreed to be interviewed only on the condition he not be identified, says that Arafat, after writing Powell, speculated to visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the Israeli intelligence service had set up the arms shipment as a way to embarrass the PA.

Voicing the common complaint of a host of US and Israeli officials who have dealt with Arafat, the Israeli adds: "You're speechless, sometimes, with him."

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