July 5, 2001
What Next for the Mideast Quagmire?
One year after a Camp David summit produced the greatest hope yet that a far-reaching peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was attainable, it now appears that peace is as elusive as ever.
Both the Israelis and the Bush administration are at a loss for what to do next to quell the violence that has buffeted the region for the past nine months.
Just days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell failed in his efforts to salvage a shaky cease-fire agreement, the State Department is admitting, as one official put it: "We have no big cards left to play."
"It's only day-to-day efforts to try and keep it moving," the State Department official told JTA.
The Israelis, too, are uncertain where to turn.
Powell visited the Middle East last week in an effort to set a timeline for advancing back toward political negotiations.
But within days of his departure, the violence showed no signs of abating.
On Monday alone -- the worst day of violence since the cease-fire went into effect on June 13 -- two Israelis were killed in Palestinian shooting attacks, three members of Islamic Jihad died in an Israeli helicopter attack, and two car bombs were detonated in an Israeli town near Tel Aviv.
Should the U.S. cease-fire initiative fail completely, Israeli officials have discussed a number of options, including:
Opponents of the idea say Israel would have to abandon settlements -- or leave them in Palestinian hands. They also cite its exorbitant costs.
Powell returned to the United States having presumably secured agreement for a timetable by which to move from confrontation to cooperation.
The timetable incorporated Israel's demand that a seven-day period of quiet would precede a six-week "cooling-off" period before the sides sit down to implement confidence-building measures.
Those measures, outlined in a report authored by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, include a freeze on Israeli settlements, a halt to Palestinian incitement and the arrest of wanted terrorists.
While Bush administration officials are hoping for the seven-day cooling-off period to begin, they know that a full week of quiet is unlikely.
Their strategy for the moment is to work on the day-to-day triage, in hopes of preventing escalation, and searching for a new strategy to bring Israel and the Palestinians together.
"There is some level of resignation that steps have to be taken by the parties in the region," the State Department official said. "There is only so far we can go."
Security meetings between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been fruitful, and the envoys in the region continue their work, the official said. But the State Department is beginning to realize that the problem could be terminal.
The Bush administration originally approached the Middle East conflict at arm's length, choosing to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only when the parties requested it.
Instead of formulating its own approach to ending the violence, the administration latched onto the Mitchell Report, which stemmed from an international fact-finding mission and was issued in May.
But in recent weeks, the administration has been forced to become more active, according to officials and analysts.
The Palestinian bombing of a Tel Aviv disco brought increased international attention to the conflict. The Bush administration reversed course and sent CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East. Tenet got both leaders to agree to a cease-fire "working plan," but fighting continued.
Powell's trip last week was seen as a chance to solidify that working plan, and get the parties to move forward.
While some minor headway was made on ironing out the details of the Mitchell and Tenet plans, Powell was unable to get either side to completely stop the violence. And the agreed-upon standard for moving forward -- seven days of complete quiet -- is seen as nearly impossible to achieve.
With Bush reluctant to get into the diplomatic arena personally, Powell was the biggest arsenal in the administration's hands. Now the State Department will need to look for a new approach.
"The problem now is that the State Department has no second act," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, an analyst with the Middle East Institute. Many believe that they are out of serious options, and will need to rethink their agenda in the Middle East.
One of the options they should consider, analysts say, is for the United States to step up their day-to-day efforts and increase the pressure on both sides, essentially playing the role of a referee.
Wittes said the State Department will need to "keep a very careful and public eye" on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and be ready to scold them when they don't follow the guidelines laid out in the Mitchell and Tenet plans.
Some analysts believe the United States should seek more active support from their international partners because of a growing belief that pressure must be placed on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from sources other than the United States.
Much has been made of the fact that Arafat agreed to the cease-fire after the Tel Aviv disco bombing at least in part because of the efforts of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. The belief is that it will take a unified front against Arafat to yield results.
"There is a general frustration that Jordan and Egypt aren't doing enough," said an official with a major American Jewish organization.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, disagreed, saying that only American support is critical.
"Everything else is irrelevant," Hoenlein said. "The Europeans can't offer anything to Arafat."
The United States, however, has several carrots and sticks in its bag, and being more forceful with consequences for both sides is another option.
The United States could punish the Palestinian Authority for its use of mortars and other weapons, a violation of the Oslo accords, and could reprimand Israel for its use of American-made F-16s, which are supposed to only be used for defensive purposes. The State Department has also raised concerns about Israel's practice of targeted killings.
Specifically, the United States could withhold or restrict aid to the Palestinians and place one of the Palestinian factions on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organization.
The major perk the Bush administration could offer Arafat is a visit to the White House.
As for Israel, the United States could follow through with $800 million in supplemental aid to Israel, which was promised by President Clinton before leaving office, but the Bush administration has been reluctant to follow through given the current situation.
But the Bush administration faces political restrictions to those ideas. Too harsh a penalty against the Palestinians could disrupt the U.S. relationship with Arab countries, crucial to bolstering the White House's policy toward Iraq.
Delegitimizing Arafat would also be risky, say analysts, not knowing who would replace him.
At the same time, any attempt to punish Israel would certainly draw criticism from the American Jewish community and its numerous supporters in Congress. That would also happen if Arafat comes to Washington.
At some point, the administration may be forced to abandon the Mitchell report altogether, and try a different approach, although it remains publicly reluctant to do that.
"I don't think we have an exact time period of when Mitchell becomes just another report on the shelf. But it's clear that there is an opportunity here and that we're going to continue to urge the parties to take advantage of it," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this week.