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Bush Considers Cutting P.A. Ties, but Questions Linger About Effect

January 30, 2002
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As the Bush administration ponders whether to cut ties with the Palestinian Authority, the debate continues over the ramifications of such a step.

Formally breaking ties with the Palestinian Authority would be the most extreme sanction — and many believe the least likely — that the United States could take.

The White House has grown increasingly angry at P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s desultory efforts to control Palestinian violence, but many in the Bush administration believe a complete break in relations would be too severe a reaction.

Some lawmakers and American Jewish leaders are recommending that Bush cut the ties. Yet other voices say the step would backfire.

“If you cut ties, there will be no improvement in the situation, and possibly a deterioration,” said Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “There would be no real check or hope of any check on Palestinian behavior.”

Critics say that cutting ties with the Palestinian Authority would handicap the Bush administration if regional violence intensifies. Taking the most extreme step now, they say, leaves no more cards in Bush’s hand.

Walker said he believes it even could lead to more Israeli and Palestinian casualties.

“I don’t know if keeping ties will be particularly productive, but I can guarantee dropping ties will not stop attacks,” he said.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, disagrees. He advocates cutting ties with the Palestinian Authority, which he said could lead to an immediate drop in violence.

“It is just as likely to decrease violence as it is to increase it,” Satloff said. “There are many Palestinians who will see” how “ill-served they are by the current leadership, and will agitate for a change.”

Satloff says the sanction will not leave the United States short of options in the region. In fact, he says the Bush administration could maintain security talks with the Palestinians while avoiding talks at a senior political level.

“The foreseeable future is bleak,” Satloff said. The best option for the United States, he believes, is to begin preparing for the post-Arafat era.

Many believe the Bush administration should work on two tracks at once, developing post-Arafat contingency plans while still maintaining a dialogue with Arafat.

Administration officials also are considering more moderate options, including suspending the mission of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, placing the Palestinian Authority, the PLO or one of its constituent groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, closing the PLO’s Washington office or cutting aid to the Palestinian territories.

Officials close to the decision-making process say the administration is leaning toward ending Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s contact with Arafat, but allowing Powell and other officials to remain engaged.

No decisions are expected until Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in Washington next week.

One major question dividing opinion-makers is whether Arafat can control the violent factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those who say Arafat is still relevant believe the United States must do more to push him to crack down on violence, and believe that cutting ties will have the opposite effect.

Those who believe Arafat wields little power believe that, if he is so weak, there’s no point in conducting a in dialogue with him. They argue that by cutting the U.S. Agency for International Development’s financial aid to the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority will be weakened.

“The process toward real reconciliation is to force the Palestinian people to rethink their leadership and bring to the forefront people who desire real peace,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. His group has taken out ads featuring more than 60 Jewish and Christian leaders calling on Bush to cut ties to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Klein said he believes U.S. action could lead the European Union and other countries to withhold aid from the Palestinian Authority, and the lack of money ultimately could drive Arafat from power.

“People will demand pragmatic leadership,” he said.

But one American foreign policy adviser working with Palestinian officials said he believes a full break will marginalize people within the Palestinian Authority who are working toward peace.

“It will cause more chaos, with the distinct possibility that real extremists get a lot of power,” the official said. “It will remove what few restrictions are in place” for terrorist organizations, and give Arafat nothing positive to work for.

“There will be no one in our corner at all,” he said. “It will weaken the people working for the Oslo agenda.,” he said, referring to the now-moribund peace process.

Support for cutting ties has risen in recent weeks, mostly since Israel’s seizure Jan. 3 of a Gaza-bound ship filled with 50 tons of weapons. The shipment allegedly had been coordinated by the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Hezbollah.

“The carrot approach has not worked,” Ackerman said. “Now we’re going to give” Arafat “the stick. The Palestinians only react if they have to.”

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