WASHINGTON (Jan. 15)
Israel’s seizure of the Karine A weapons ship earlier this month could prove to be a turning point in the Jewish state’s relations with the Palestinian Authority — if the United States allows it.
After a week exploring the ramifications of the arms shipment from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, the State Department has returned to business as usual, preparing for another peacekeeping mission by envoy Anthony Zinni.
It remains unclear exactly when Zinni will return to the Middle East. Yet the fact that he is expected back soon concerns some Israel supporters upset both by the weapons found on the Karine A and the Palestinian Authority’s apparent cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in obtaining them.
State Department officials say Zinni will return to the region by the end of the month seeking an end to Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
That bloodshed continued Tuesday, as two Israelis were killed in separate shooting attacks just outside Jerusalem.
In the first incident, Avi Boaz, 71, a building contractor with dual Israeli-American citizenship, was kidnapped at a Palestinian security checkpoint and driven to Beit Sahur in the West Bank, where he was shot repeatedly at close range. The body was so badly disfigured that Israeli officials said it may have been abused after Boaz’s death.
Later in the day, Palestinian gunmen attacked two Israelis in a car at a gas station just north of Jerusalem in the West Bank. One woman was killed and another seriously injured.
That followed violence Monday in which a leading Palestinian terrorist, Raed Karmi, was killed by a bomb in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Palestinians blamed Israel, which refused to comment but noted that Karmi was responsible for killing at least seven Israelis in various terrorist attacks.
In retaliation, gunmen from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party shot and killed an Israeli soldier and wounded another in the West Bank.
On Tuesday, the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told a Knesset committee that Arafat’s agreement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad not to attack Israel had been canceled — and that Iran had ordered new terror attacks. Mofaz warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Palestinians have smuggled rockets into the West Bank, and may use them against Israeli population centers and airports in the near future.
Still, the Bush administration said it would continue to work for peace.
“We are going to continue to work with the parties in the absence of conclusive evidence that one or the other has abandoned a peaceful pursuit as their central objective,” a State Department official said. “Obviously, it is something that we are going to continue to assess.”
But some say the Bush administration is returning to diplomatic gestures too soon after the startling capture of the weapons shipment, without the Palestinian Authority facing any significant consequences.
“This issue needs to be looked at in the eye, and not swept under the table,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Based on Israeli evidence presented last week, Bush administration officials have concluded that the 50 tons of weapons seized in the Red Sea were headed for the Palestinian Authority, and that the Palestinians planned the operation together with Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel says the evidence clearly implicates Arafat. For one, he keeps such tight control over the P.A.’s purse strings that it is inconceivable that $10 million or more could be spent on weapons without his knowledge, Israeli officials said. In addition, the operation was planned and directed by several top Arafat aides.
The Bush administration, however, still stops short of linking the shipment directly to Arafat.
That reflects policy differences between Jerusalem and Washington. Israel last month declared Arafat “irrelevant” because of his impotence or complicity in the face of Palestinian terror, and Sharon labeled him Israel’s “bitter enemy” after the Karine A was caught.
The operative implications of such words have been limited, however, primarily because the Bush administration continues to back Arafat as the legitimate Palestinian leader — perhaps for fear of what might occur after him.
Sharon’s office announced Tuesday that a Cabinet discussion slated for Wednesday on Israel’s relationship to the Palestinian Authority had been postponed for a week.
If even the weapons smuggling isn’t enough to prompt a thorough review of American policy toward the Palestinian Authority, some say, it’s not clear what would be.
The transfer of rockets, missiles, mortars and mines on the Karine A breaks several key tenets of the Oslo peace agreement Arafat signed in 1993 with Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
For one, it is illegal for the Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to be largely demilitarized, to possess such weapons. Furthermore, the Palestinians are forbidden from signing military alliances with hostile groups, and Iran and Hezbollah are sworn enemies of the Jewish state.
“I think this is a really big deal and the State Department is publicly not acknowledging the dimensions of the issues, the gravity and the stakes it poses for the peace process,” Makovsky said.
For Israel, the incident highlights concerns about trusting the Palestinian Authority to live up to any agreement it signs. It also feeds Israelis’ worst fears about whom a future Palestinian state might seek as allies.
Israel has not opposed Zinni’s return, however, as the government hopes to reach a short-term cease-fire and, possibly, a long-term resolution of the Palestinian intifada.
A State Department official cautioned that sending Zinni to the region should not be seen as a reward for Arafat.
“Zinni’s mission is ending the violence, which is in the interest of both parties,” the official said.
There is an American interest as well. With officials considering the next target in the war on terrorism — perhaps the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — the United States hopes to calm tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in order to calm Arab allies.
Further adding to the pressure to send Zinni is a feeling that the United States has no alternative. Canceling his mission would appear to confirm that the Palestinian Authority can’t or won’t control terrorism and that Arafat is not a peace partner — leaving the United States with no one to talk to among the Palestinians until, eventually, an alternate power center emerges.
If the Bush administration finally connected Arafat to the terrorism against Israel, “there would be no turning back,” one official with an American Jewish organization said. “The State Department is never going to take that last step.”
For now, American Jewish officials are comforted by the delays in Zinni’s return, which some say shows that the Bush administration is assessing Arafat’s role in the weapons shipment.
“I don’t think it’s over yet. I don’t think it has been determined what the United States is going to do,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “There has to be some consequence to this, beyond the embarrassment.”