WASHINGTON (Dec. 3)
A weekend’s worth of bloody attacks on Israel have turned the Bush administration’s first major push for peace in the Middle East on its head.
Just two weeks earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was outlining the path towards a cease-fire in the region, and dispatching an envoy to add emphasis to his words.
Talk of a Palestinian state was receiving unprecedented support in the United States and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being pressured to cut back on his demands for quiet before starting negotiations.
Now, after a series of suicide bombers in Jerusalem and Haifa claimed the lives of at least 25 Israelis, the old checklist for the path toward negotiations has been thrown out, and new questions are arising.
Paramount among these questions is whether Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is a legitimate partner for peace and a legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.
Sources say until these questions are answered, the United States initiative laid out last month is at a standstill.
Envoy Anthony Zinni, a former U.S. Marine Corps general, remains in the region “making calls,” according to a State Department spokesman, but is no longer working towards his initial goal of bringing forth a cease-fire.
Instead, he has been working the phones, placing pressure on the Palestinian leadership to crack down on terrorism, alongside his American colleagues.
Under the current climate, the chances of him bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for security cooperation meetings seem unlikely.
Gone is the list of requirements for both Israelis and Palestinians in order to bring forth a cease-fire.
In his speech two weeks ago in Louisville, Ky., Powell said the Palestinian Authority must curb violence and incitement and Israel should halt settlement activity.
Gone is the list of perks Arafat could receive if the Palestinians move toward a cease-fire, most notably encouragement by President Bush and Powell for an eventual Palestinian state.
They have been replaced with a total repudiation of Palestinian actions and a demand that the Palestinian Authority curb the violence.
Specifically, U.S. officials have been telling Palestinian leaders that they need to replicate the crackdown on the terrorist infrastructure that occurred after a series of bus bombs in spring 1996, according to an administration official.
“The other roundups were targeted at people and had no lasting effects,” the official said, adding that “1996 was infrastructure in nature.”
The U.S. decision not to call for Israel restraint in reaction to the attacks is perhaps most significant.
While most Palestinian attacks in the past — including the mass-casualty deaths at the Tel Aviv disco and Jerusalem restaurant earlier this year — led to calls for Israeli restraint, the weekend’s attacks did not.
That has widely been interpreted as a sign of U.S. empathy towards Israel’s plight.
And even after Israel began attacking Gaza on Monday and announced its declaration of war on terrorism, U.S. officials continued to say Israel has a right to defend itself.
Even before the Haifa bus attack Sunday, U.S. officials were taking a tougher line against the Palestinians, calling on Palestinians to use “actions, and not merely their words” to control violence.
On Monday, the administration went further.
“The president believes very strongly that this is a moment for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate that he stands with those who seek peace,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
“The president thinks that this is the chance now for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate real leadership that is lasting, that is enduring, that puts people responsible for this away and does so in such a way that they cannot get out again and commit more terror.”
The United States is in some ways handicapped by its own international battle against terrorism.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, it has become harder for the United States to urge Israel to refrain from attacking the targets of its domestic terrorism while it is doing the same thing in Afghanistan.
In fact, Sharon used pointed comparisons to the U.S. battle against Afghanistan and the Al Qaida network in justifying attacks on the Palestinian Authority.
The current climate has made it virtually impossible for Zinni to bring the parties together.
Israeli activists had hoped that Zinni’s presence in the region would have led to a more cautious Arafat, placing a shorter leash on terrorist groups while he is being monitored by a U.S. envoy.
But if Arafat was willing in working with Zinni, he was unable to contain the radical groups, and the envoy himself has acknowledged that his presence might have been a catalyst for the weekend’s attacks for those who have no interest in seeing any progress toward peace.
In the end, the international pressure on Arafat has eclipsed anything Zinni could have brought on the Palestinian Authority.
Even with the White House referencing the 1996 terrorist roundup, it is unclear what actions the Palestinian leadership could take that would be acceptable to the United States, and bring them back to working with Zinni towards a cease-fire, which is their ultimate goal.
The mantra for judging Palestinian compliance, according to one administration official, is “I’ll know it when I see it.”