Anthony Zinni’s return to the Middle East will test the willingness of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make sacrifices for a cease-fire.
The former Marine Corps general’s first trip to the region was disrupted by several major suicide bombings that led the United States to exert unprecedented pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to crack down on terrorism.
Zinni left the region late last month, apparently with little hope of negotiating a cease-fire. His return, however, is considered an acknowledgment by the United States that the Palestinians recently have made some progress in halting terror.
“What they see is that it’s no longer a frozen situation,” but an opportunity to resume negotiations, said Stephen Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum. “He wants to see whether he can move it further.”
While continuing to pressure Arafat to curb Palestinian violence, Zinni also is expected to pressure Israel to ease the Palestinians’ economic crisis by ending closures on their cities and releasing tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority.
Word of Zinni’s trip already had aggravated strains between the left- and right-wing elements in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unity government.
Sharon has insisted on a week without attacks before the sides begin implementing peace moves prescribed by two previous U.S. envoys, CIA Director George Tenet and former Sen. George Mitchell.
Yet Sharon’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, indicated that Israel might begin counting in a day or two if the reduced level of violence holds. In recent weeks, the number of Palestinian attacks on Israelis has fallen from roughly 20 to 10 a day.
Peres told a Foreign Ministry forum Wednesday that Arafat may become “relevant” again if he enforces a cease-fire. A Security Cabinet decision in December declared Arafat “irrelevant” after two suicide bomb attacks in Haifa and Jerusalem killed 26 people in a 24-hour period.
Zinni originally went to the Middle East in November with a mandate, outlined by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, to bring the sides to take the necessary steps toward a lasting cease fire. The Bush administration had begun using new language to entice the Palestinian Authority to come to the table, including the first explicit acknowledgments of U.S. support for an eventual Palestinian state.
Powell called on Israel to end its occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — a rare use of that term from a U.S. official — and to halt settlement growth. He called on the Palestinians to end anti-Israel violence and incitement.
When Zinni arrived, however, he was met by some of the worst violence of the 15-month-old intifada, including the attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Zinni left the region with little enthusiasm for the prospects of peace. U.S. rhetoric toward Arafat and the Palestinian leadership became harsher, and organizations linked to Palestinian terrorist groups were targeted both in the United States and internationally.
However, since then Arafat has made some efforts to stop violence and control terrorist organizations. Zinni’s current trip, which will last less than a week and include no trilateral talks, will allow him to assess whether the situation is ripe for a second major push.
“The facts on the ground will determine what Zinni can do,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who just returned from the Middle East. “You get such a totally different picture from being there.”
A State Department spokesman said Zinni is returning to the region with the same mission — to take small steps toward a lasting cease-fire. He said Zinni believes he had made some progress on his first trip before the suicide attacks interrupted everything.
The goal of this trip will be to move forward from that starting point, the spokesman said.
While the level of violence has gone down since Zinni left, there still are daily attacks.
“Clearly, things are happening,” Hoenlein said. “There is a reduction, but it doesn’t meet the requirement of a period of quiet, and there haven’t been the arrests” of major terrorists that Israel has demanded.
The State Department says there has been a “relative reduction in violence,” but that the Palestinian Authority “can and must do more.”
In overnight consultations Tuesday, Sharon consented to an American request to ease restrictions on the Palestinians ahead of Zinni’s arrival. But on Wednesday, Peres claimed that no concrete action had been taken on the ground.
Peres has urged Sharon to give Arafat incentives to continue a crackdown on terrorists. Right-wing elements in the government, however, say Arafat still is not making meaningful moves against the infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and therefore Israel must keep the pressure on.
Sharon this week nixed an initiative for Israel’s president to appear before the Palestinian legislative council to call for a year-long cease-fire. The proposal, raised by a former Arab Knesset member and an Israeli businessman, suggested that President Moshe Katsav call for a yearlong hudna, the Arabic term for a temporary armistice.
Katsav, a former legislator from Sharon’s Likud Party, indicated he was open to the idea. But sources in Sharon’s office shot the idea down as “stupid” and a Palestinian propaganda ploy.
On Tuesday, Sharon reiterated the need for “seven days of complete quiet” before moving ahead with peace plans.
“The seven days is not our idea, but it is up to both sides to come up with a program that they can agree to that gets us into Tenet and Mitchell,” a State Department spokesman said.
The Bush administration prefers a different measure, hoping to see whether Arafat is making 100 percent effort against terror, even if he can’t deliver 100 percent results.
Arafat has not met even that lower standard, U.S. officials say.
If the United States determines that the Palestinian Authority is doing enough to move forward with peace talks, the onus will fall on Sharon. He will have to decide whether to accept the U.S. standard — or risk being seen as the obstacle to peace.
Already, Sharon is facing pressure from Katsav and Peres to open a dialogue with the Palestinians.
“The dovish members of this government don’t have the ability to force anything on the government,” Cohen said. “But they have the capacity to make the United States’ message to the Israeli people carry more weight.”
While Palestinian terrorist groups have been relatively quiet in recent weeks — Arafat seems to have convinced them that a temporary cessation of attacks serves Palestinian national interests — Zinni’s presence may once again be a catalyst.
In the eyes of some State Department officials, Zinni received the full treatment during his first visit to the region — ranting from the Palestinian leader, trilateral sessions that went nowhere, and violence.
Now that he has been inaugurated into the fraternity of Middle East envoys, State Department officials hope this trip will be more successful.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.