Speculation about a possible observer force in Gaza and the West Bank reached a fever pitch this week, thanks to proposals by the G-8 and the European Union, and a confused response from a U.S. administration that is foundering in the whirlpool of Mideast politics.
First, officials here indicated that they supported the call for an international force, but then amended that: only if both sides agreed, they said.
Later, leaks in Washington and Israel suggested both countries were really just talking about expanding the current CIA role in monitoring the tattered cease-fire.
Jewish leaders were anxiously trying to determine whether U.S. policy was really shifting, but one thing was plain: the Bush administration, rebuffed and frustrated in its peacemaking efforts, is casting about desperately for something on which to hang U.S. policy in the region.
And some kind of expanded outside presence will continue to look attractive to many here, despite the fact that it could produce a plethora of unintended and damaging consequences.
Ironically, the countries whose demands for international observers are most insistent are the ones that have created conditions that make the idea a nonstarter for Israel.
The European nations that have been loudest in their demand for some kind of peacekeeping force have also been at the forefront of blaming Israel for each new outbreak of violence and ignoring Yasser Arafat's role.
Just before his swearing in as U.S. ambassador to Israel last week, Daniel C. Kurtzer was called into the White House for an urgent conversation with President Bush. One thing on the president's mind, reportedly: his surprise at the strong bias against Israel among the European nations.
There's also the United Nations, which should be a natural source of international observers. On Monday, Secretary General Kofi Annan endorsed the G-8 demand.
But an endless series of one-sided resolutions on the Middle East reveal a tilt that explains the powerful Israeli aversion to U.N. observers. Shocking revelations that U.N. peace monitors along the Lebanese border concealed videotape that could provide clues to the Oct. 7 kidnapping of three IDF soldiers added to long-standing mistrust.
Just in case anybody missed the point, the international body is outdoing itself these days with an upcoming international conference on racism that has turned into a forum for unrestrained Israel bashing.
Then there's the possibility of American observers.
This week, under growing international pressure because of continuing clashes and a grisly Jewish terror attack against Palestinian civilians, some members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government hinted that U.S. observers might be acceptable, possibly in an expansion of the current CIA role.
But that, too, has huge dangers.
These observers wouldn't be supervising a peace agreement already inked; even if they weren't an actual "peacekeeping" force, created to separate the two sides, they would necessarily be placed along the front lines of a conflict with few rules and many targets.
And they would be thrown into an environment in which anti-Americanism among the Palestinians is rampant.
A tragic incident could send this country fleeing from active Mideast diplomacy.
Such a force would also put the U.S. government in the awkward position of tacitly equating Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli military responses. There would be strong pressure for fairness and evenhandedness, but it is the nature of the battle that observers would be less likely to see acts of terror than to see the organized military response.
That, too, would add strains along the U.S.-Israel axis.
Congress is likely to recoil at any expanded U.S. presence on the Israeli-Palestinian front lines; Jewish groups that oppose negotiations with the Palestinians will get a receptive hearing when they highlight the dangers of such a plan.
Israel has a number of reasons for rejecting the idea of monitors, aside from the obvious bias of most of the probable monitoring groups.
Sending monitors to the region would be rewarding Arafat for starting the current terror campaign, Israel believes; in the long run, caving in to his demand would just encourage new violence. And having monitors in key places would limit the ability of the IDF to mount operations to pre-empt terror attacks and stage reprisals.
At best, the idea is a bandage, not a cure for generations of conflict. But when the alternative is massive hemorrhage, a bandage can look pretty attractive.
In the eyes of much of the world, last week's vigilante attack by Jewish extremists only reinforced Palestine's demand that its citizens need protection.
But the real reason the proposal is gathering momentum is that officials in Washington are at their wits' end about how to stop the violence and keep it from harming other U.S. interests.
There no longer is even faint hope here that a genuine peace process can resume; the only goal is damage control, especially as anti-Americanism builds among Arab and Persian Gulf allies.
Desperation, not the hope of real progress toward peace, is the engine driving the push for monitors. As the violence continues to spiral, that's a logic that will be difficult to counter -- even if the idea is rife with pitfalls.
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