As Dust Settles from Bush Speech, Two Sides Wonder What to Do Next

There is a brief moment, after a gun is fired or a bomb goes off, when the air is filled with a shocked silence broken only by the fluttering of birds who have been startled from their perches.

It is only when the dust settles that reality sets in.

That might be a fitting analogy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the dust begins to settle from President Bush’s recent speech on Middle East policy.

By coming down so strongly on Israel’s side, Bush in one stroke changed the rules of the game in the Middle East, shocking both Israelis and Palestinians.

After years in which Yasser Arafat turned double-dealing into an art form — claiming to support a peace process while funding terrorist groups — Bush made it abundantly clear that there can be no diplomatic progress until the terror stops and Palestinians remove Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.

But what happens until then? Does the Bush speech mean that nothing substantial can move on the Israeli-Palestinian track until Arafat goes?

According to follow-up statements by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, it would seem so. And that is partly why some analysts say the Bush speech, rather than breaking the Middle East deadlock, may actually have reinforced it.

Bush may have lulled Israeli leaders into thinking there is no need for them to move, analysts say, and numbed the Palestinians into resentful inaction.

The two sides seemed to be fumbling for ways forward this week. Palestinian officials alternately rallied indignantly around Arafat and offered plans to reform the Palestinian Authority — while still taking no action against terrorist groups.

Israel, meanwhile, both intensified its military operations in the West Bank and talked of offering the Palestinians a “political horizon.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told reporters Monday that after the Bush speech, Israel faced an “opportunity of the first order” to make progress toward peace.

Sharon gave no details of the diplomatic progress he had in mind, but later told members of his Likud Party that discussions were being held in the Foreign Ministry and defense establishment on guidelines for a political horizon.

In the meantime, though, Sharon is exploiting the diplomatic hiatus and Bush’s delegitimization of Arafat to take the fight to the Palestinian terrorists.

By occupying Palestinian cities in the West Bank, Sharon hopes to pre-empt suicide bombings, smash terrorist networks and seize war materiel, aides say.

The Israel Defense Force has dealt particularly severe blows to Hamas, assassinating both leading operatives in the Gaza Strip and Mohaned Taher, the organization’s operational leader in the northern West Bank, who was said to be behind a string of suicide bombings that killed more than 120 Israelis.

But as long as Israel remains in the Palestinian cities — and Sharon says it could be for months — it’s difficult to imagine the Palestinians making the necessary moves for renewed dialogue.

Israeli left-wingers fear that the occupation of Palestinian cities could, over time, lead to a full-scale reoccupation of the West Bank.

Moreover, they point out that the army is not targeting only Hamas. By destroying the Hebron governor’s building and dismantling the District Coordination Offices — the last vestige of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation — army actions could make eventual reconciliation with the Palestinians much more difficult, even after Arafat goes.

With Bush criticized for demanding steps from the Palestinians before Israel is asked to respond with its own concessions, the White House clarified that it considered the processes to be parallel.

It was perhaps in this spirit that Sharon made his recent remarks, as he has come under pressure within Israel to add a diplomatic outlook to his security policy.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer criticized Sharon on Monday for turning down Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ request to renew contacts with senior Palestinian Authority officials.

“The sense is that we can now go and let loose everything we’ve got in order to exercise our right to defend ourselves,” Ben-Eliezer, who also is head of the Labor Party, told Israel Radio. “But this can happen only at a time when Israel every minute continues to seek and move toward any possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Yet Labor seems to have little real leverage to force Sharon into a bold diplomatic gambit. The bottom line, Israeli pundits say, is that Labor won’t pull out of the unity government any time soon, at least not until the leadership race between Ben-Eliezer and legislator Haim Ramon is decided sometime between October and next January.

On the Palestinian side, the carrot in the Bush vision is viable statehood backed and funded by the international community, with the United States in the vanguard.

Despite his ostensible aspiration for Palestinian statehood, however, Arafat repeatedly has spurned this in practice. Whereas the Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century was willing to compromise to obtain a state, the Palestinians have been obsessed less with statehood than with the notion of absolute “justice.”

For Arafat, a state that closes the file on refugee claims and ends the conflict with Israel is not a prize but a trap. The question is how his successors will see this, and whether Palestinian society as a whole will be ready to pay the price of statehood: removal of Arafat, recognition of Israel’s right to exist and readiness to live alongside it in peace.

For now there is little sign of any imminent succession. The initial Palestinian reaction to the Bush speech was to gather round their beleaguered leader and angrily reject American interference in their choice of leadership.

Moreover, Arafat himself has not indicated any readiness to bow out, and his centralizing style is such that he remains in total control of Palestinian funds.

Rumors abound, however. According to one, Arafat will retire to Cairo and Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the relatively dovish Palestinian leaders, will take over and organize new elections. Moreover, some Palestinian leaders are saying publicly that Arafat may have been the right man to lead the revolution but is not the man to build the institutions of statehood, leaving open the possibility that he will be replaced.

In addition, popular unrest continues to grow, with several thousand Palestinian protesters taking to the streets of Gaza to criticize the P.A.’s corruption and its inability to provide food, work or unemployment benefits.

If Arafat does go, things could move quickly. Israeli officials do not think the sweeping reforms that Bush demanded of the Palestinian Authority — democratization, financial transparency, judicial integrity and separation of powers — will have to be carried out to the letter before new peace talks can begin. Sharon reportedly has told the Bush administration as much.

What will have to happen, in Sharon’s view, is reform of the Palestinian security forces, whittling them down from some 15 groups to only three, under a unified command. That, Sharon argues, is an important indicator of Palestinian readiness to finally end terrorism.

Indeed, according to American sources, Sharon and Rice have discussed even the size of the pensions for heads of the Palestinian security services who would be forced to resign when the number of organizations is cut.

Given the complexity of the situation and the sensitivities involved, it seems that it will take a combination of subtle and not so subtle inducements and pressures from the United States on both sides to break the deadlock.

In a column in Yediot Achronot, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, suggested that another major American initiative could be in the offing, perhaps a proposal for international trusteeship to replace the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Bush speech, Indyk wrote, was “so one-sided in Israel’s favor that the pendulum is bound to swing back in the other direction. The United States has too much to lose in the Arab world and can’t afford not to balance the scales,” he said.

As Powell warned, “Toughness is like a windshield wiper; it moves from side to side.”

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