The resurgence of Israeli-Palestinian violence threatens to derail US efforts to keep Iraq atop the international agenda.
After two suicide bombings last week spoiled a relatively long month-and-a-half of calm in the Middle East, at least nine Palestinians died Tuesday in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Mr. Arafat remains under siege in his Ramallah compound.
While American diplomats are concerned about the escalating violence in its own right, the acute concern raised by the recent violence is how it complicates American efforts to muster Arab support for the US campaign against Iraq especially for a tough new United Nations Security Council resolution expected to demand that Iraq either accept unfettered weapons inspections, or face the consequences.
"There was a hope against hope in the [Bush] administration that you could have a war with Iraq and not have it aggravated by ... Israel, but this shows that's not going to be possible," says Ian Lustick, a Middle East expert at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania.
Calling efforts to "stir up violence in Israel ... pull Israel into an active conflict ..." and raise international concerns about the Palestinians' well-being the "cost-effective strategy in Saddam Hussein's arsenal," Mr. Lustick adds, "We're seeing just the first skirmishes of what we can expect along this line."
Already Arab states have pressed the issue, citing Israel's decades of flaunting UN demands. This makes President Bush's call for the UN to enforce Security Council resolutions on Iraq as politically expedient. "Why these double standards?" Yanya Mahmassani, a representative of the Arab League asked on Tuesday at the UN.
More than once since the spring, Middle East violence has sidetracked the US and the international community from confronting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. With that experience fresh in mind, the US is determined not to lose the momentum again.
Accordingly, the US took quick action to defuse the violence and is indicating it may do more. On Monday the US proposed a draft Security Council resolution condemning Israel's recent actions in unusually strong terms as well as Palestinian suicide bombers.
The US draft was ultimately not adopted in the heated fourteen hour debate. Instead, the Security Council early Tuesday voted 14-0 vote in favor of a resolution calling upon Israel to stop the siege of Mr. Arafat's headquarters. It also pressed Israel for "[an] expeditious withdrawal of ... occupying forces" and the Palestinians "to ensure that those responsible for terrorist acts are brought to justice." The US abstained but pointedly did not veto the measure.
UN action this week followed a weekend of intense diplomacy by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wrapped up a day of phone calls Saturday with one to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. According to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, the secretary told Mr. Sharon the Israeli seige at the Ramallah comound "aggravated the situation" and "does not contribute to goals" the US and Israel agree on for the region, including reform of Palestinian institutions.
One State Department official said, "It looks like the Israelis froze the situation after the [secretary's] phone call," hoping to signal that US efforts to rein in the Israelis were ameliorative - but he said that before Tuesday.
The message the US is sending to regional leaders, beginning with Mr. Sharon, is that the conflict must not be allowed to distract the world from Iraq. The US is also testing the sway it holds in Tel Aviv, after Israel announced that in the event of an Iraqi attack - unlike during the 1991 Gulf War - it would retaliate.
The Israeli promise, if carried out, would unsettle US relations with Iraq's Arab neighbors and complicate American war plans. Iraq tried "somewhat belatedly in the Gulf war to draw in Israel, and we would be wise and Israel would be wise not to grab that bait," says Ambassador Cutler, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "When push comes to shove, we can be sure [Hussein] will try to turn this into an attack on the Arab world by the American-slash-Israeli aggressors."
There are early signs the US recognizes this. Last week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "It would be overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to stay out [of Iraq]."
But experts consider that an Israeli government under Sharon is unlikely to sit by idly if missiles fly again especially since it has already spoken. As a result, they believe the US will negotiate behind the scenes with Israel to avoid the appearance of a US-Israeli common front, but also to avoid friendly-fire accidents on the battle field.
This is so for two basic reasons: first, its military leaders believe Israel's enemies took its failure to act as a weakness, and thus was a disservice to Israel in the long run; and second, Israel considers it has found a winning strategy in adopting the US stance against terrorism, and is not about to back down now.
"Sharon has used Afghanistan to justify his actions, saying 'We're doing to our terrorists what they [the US] are doing to theirs,'" says Lustick. He adds, "And we can expect Israel to continue with that."