WASHINGTON, July 24 (JTA) — Israel has agreed to the presence of U.S. monitors for a fragile cease- fire with the Palestinian Authority, but much remains unclear about the scope and timing of any international presence in the Middle East.
Bowing to a growing push for an observer force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — most strongly articulated at this week’s meeting of G-8 leaders in Genoa, Italy — Israel has accepted the idea of CIA officials serving as monitors.
But while the CIA has stretched its mission to include facilitating security talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, serving as international observers would move the agency into uncharted territory.
A monitoring role would be the latest escalation of the Bush administration’s part in the Mideast conflict. The administration, which has been hesitant to take broad steps, would be intervening in response to requests from Europe and the Arab world.
After years of intensive American involvement under the Clinton administration, the ground seemed to have shifted when George W. Bush took office in January.
The Bush White House originally said the CIA would not play a role in the Middle East conflict, despite the fact that CIA Director George Tenet was involved in negotiating a final status security agreement at the failed Camp David talks last July.
Within a few months of the Bush administration taking office, however, Tenet was back in the region facilitating security talks.
His meetings produced the “Tenet working plan,” a June cease-fire agreement under which Israel and the Palestinian Authority would resume security cooperation and end violence.
The Tenet plan — and recommendations of an international commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell — have formed the major policy guidelines for U.S. and other diplomats working to get the negotiation process back on track in recent months.
However, a subsequent trip to the region by Secretary of State Colin Powell in late June failed to tone down the violence and rhetoric, and the Bush administration is currently low on options.
The administration had stood by Israel’s refusal to admit international monitors. Israel fears monitors merely would provide cover for attacks by Palestinian militants, while documenting and criticizing the Israeli army’s response.
On his recent trip, Powell first voiced U.S. support for the monitor idea, then backtracked in the face of Israeli criticism. Since then, Israel and the United States have been negotiating the issue, and have agreed that an augmented CIA role would be acceptable.
Israel says only the Americans will be permitted to serve as monitors, and the United States has made clear that it will set up a monitoring mechanism only if it is approved by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Both Israel and the United States say monitoring would begin during the seven-day cooling-off period outlined in the Mitchell Report.
While the CIA has dipped its feet into the Middle East several times during the past few years, Tenet remains hesitant to involve the agency too heavily, and he may fight White House attempts to use his staff in an observer role, sources told JTA.
However, Tenet also was reluctant to jump into the Mideast fray under President Clinton — seeing the peace process as outside CIA jurisdiction — but bowed to a personal appeal by Clinton.
A State Department official said the task of monitoring international situations usually falls either to the State or Defense Departments, and would be new for the CIA.
Israel sees the observer role as similar to the CIA’s current role as “security facilitator.” In Israel’s eyes, the monitors will not be expected to travel to the scene of each terrorist attack, but will observe from a distance.
“They want to reconfigure the CIA role to make it more appealing to the Europeans and the Arabs, but keep it within the Tenet guidelines,” one Israeli official in Washington said.
But the Palestinians would prefer a monitoring force that actually would intercede during volatile incidents, and it is unclear whether they will accept the CIA’s role as proposed by the Israelis. A State Department spokesman said details of the monitors’ role still must be worked out.
The Palestinian Authority preferred an international force, but is said to have agreed to a team composed only of Americans.
Allowing an observer force, even in name, would signal to the European community that Israel is willing to be held accountable for its actions.
Yet some remain skeptical that monitors will be able to stem the slide toward escalation in the region.
“People would like to see some kind of system that is acceptable to both sides that could actually help the situation, but I’m not sure it’s going to work,” said Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt.
Israel, for its part, is skeptical about international observers’ ability to keep the situation quiet. The international force in Hebron, for example, has not been effective in quelling violence or holding the Palestinians accountable for their actions.
“It’s an illusion to think that international monitors would solve any problems,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said. “It only becomes a point of new friction.”
And there is concern that Israeli acquiescence to a monitoring force would represent a reward for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian uprising — giving Arafat even less of an incentive to rein in Palestinian violence.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the monitors will be more acceptable to Israelis if they do not go to the scene of each terrorist attack.
“They’ll never be there when the terrorist attack happens, they’ll only be there for the Israeli response,” Hoenlein said.
Walker, too, acknowledged that Israel is afraid that its free press and democratic political system will make it easier for observers to view their actions — while the “Palestinians will hide behind the monitors.”