Envoy’s Return to Region Eases Vice President’s Middle East Trip

Peace envoy Anthony Zinni’s return to the Middle East is seen as an attempt to address mounting international pressure on the Bush administration, and ease the Mideast trip of Vice President Dick Cheney.

After saying that he would not send Zinni back to the region until Palestinian attacks on Israel fell substantially, President Bush reversed course March 7 and said Zinni would return to the region, as he was scheduled to do this week.

Zinni’s second mission to the region ended in early January, at which time he set several conditions for anti-terror action by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Arafat largely has ignored the demands. Yet American officials believe that without some gesture, Cheney’s trip to the region — where he plans to discuss the American war on terrorism and a possible attack on Iraq — would have been consumed by Arab calls for American action in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Concern for the Cheney trip “was the key element,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They didn’t want the Cheney visit to be diverted and marred by Arab-Israeli issues.”

Indeed, Cheney was at the president’s side when Zinni’s trip was announced. He noted that the Arab-Israeli conflict was “not the only thing” on his agenda.

Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said sending Zinni back to the region eases the pressure on Arafat to control violence.

“Having Zinni return before violence stops is a concession to the terrorism that is going on,” he said.

A State Department official, however, said that is not the case.

“The violence got so out of hand, we wrote ourselves a new parameter for sending Zinni back,” the official said. “In sending Zinni right now, we can remove any excuses Arafat may claim for not doing what he must do.”

In early December, on Zinni’s first visit to the region, Palestinian suicide bombers launched massive attacks Israel, forcing Zinni to return to the United States.

On his second visit, a Palestinian ship was caught transporting tons of weapons and ammunition from Iran.

Some people question what options the Bush administration will have if Zinni again proves ineffective.

But other analysts say Zinni is the best, if not the only, choice right now.

Stephen Spiegel, a political scientist and a scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, said it was a mistake to announce that Zinni would not return until violence was quelled, since it allowed terrorists to veto any diplomatic progress.

In the end, it was precisely the increasing violence, and international pressure to stop it, that forced Bush to make the move.

Since Zinni was recalled in January, the Bush administration has kept rhetorical pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to curb terrorist attacks as the first step toward a cease-fire.

But all signs are that the policy has been ineffective. Knowing that the United States has asked Israel not to harm or overthrow him, Arafat has waited out the Israeli siege in his Ramallah headquarters, and has taken virtually no steps to stop Palestinian violence against Israel.

Instead, his mainstream Fatah faction has emerged lately as the leading militant group, carrying out virtually all the terror attacks of recent weeks through its Tanzim and Al-Aksa Brigade militias. Hamas got back into the fray with an attack in the Gaza Strip on March 7.

With United States’ activity reduced to verbal salvoes, the spotlight has shifted in the past few weeks to initiatives from the European and Arab states, which are less palatable to Israel.

As more states sought ways to temper the conflict, each pressed for U.S. intervention. The United Nations, European Union, and Egypt all have called on the United States to get involved, as have U.S. newspaper editorials.

Tellingly, The New York Times last week called on Israel to drop its demand for an end to violence and terrorism before diplomatic negotiations can resume.

Despite the demands for U.S. action, expectations for Zinni’s mission are low.

“The feeling is that stopping things from hemorrhaging is something,” Makovsky said. Zinni also might be able to restart Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, Makovksy said, but little more than that.

Zinni is likely to focus on getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority to move straight to a work plan laid out by CIA Director George Tenet — including security discussions and arrest of terrorists — to ensure a cease-fire.

That is designed to allow for a cooling off period, followed by the Mitchell Plan of confidence-building measures leading to a resumption of peace talks.

“The first step toward any political solution has got to be the Tenet plan,” Bush said in announcing Zinni’s return.

Sharon has said Israel will not begin the Tenet plan until the Palestinians stop their attacks for a week, but he is expected to face intense pressure to drop that demand.

Because the Tenet plan requires various anti-terror steps from Arafat initially, American officials hope the Israeli government will go for it. From Israeli, it demands an end to the policy of targeted killings of Palestinian militants and the removal of troops from areas under Palestinian Authority control.

The United States also is expected to urge Israel to use some $225 million in frozen P.A. tax funds to aid the Palestinian economy, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Pressure on Israel has been stronger in the last week, as State Department officials have openly questioned Sharon’s tactics. Most worrisome, from Washington’s perspective, were Sharon’s comments last week that peace talks cannot resume until Israel hits the Palestinians so hard that they realize the strategy of violence and terror is counterproductive.

“Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies to see whether they will work,” Powell said March 6 before a House subcommittee. “If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don’t know that that leads us anywhere.”

Analysts say Powell is not the only one to take umbrage at Sharon’s remarks. Since Sharon stated openly that there currently is no diplomatic horizon with the Palestinians, only a military one, dissent has risen markedly among Israelis, who feel Sharon has failed in his primary responsibility to stop Palestinian terror.

“Sharon’s policy was controversial in Israel, and a controversial step to many Americans,” Spiegel said.

Some originally took Powell’s comments, and other State Department rhetoric last week that was critical or Israel, as a sign that the Bush administration was returning to its original policy of “even-handed” condemnation of attacks by either side.

Others worried that Powell’s comments were an attempt to garner Arab support for Cheney’s agenda, reviving images that first made Jewish leaders nervous when the United States courted Arab support for its anti-terror coalition after Sept. 11.

“If you play good cop, bad cop, America can stand strong with Israel but have a corridor for the Arab world,” JINSA’s Neumann said. “That corridor is the State Department.”

But many feel Sharon’s comments warranted a rebuke.

“Clearly the situation, coupled by Sharon’s comments, forced Powell’s hand,” Makovsky said.

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