The first shot has yet to be fired in the anticipated American-led war against Iraq, but diplomats are already preparing the ground for a concerted effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as soon as it's over.
The "Quartet," made up of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, is refining ideas for a political road map to be presented to Israel and the Palestinians when America's business with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is finished. Such efforts formed the subtext to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's meeting with President Bush in Washington on Wednesday.
The Bush administration is exerting tremendous pressure on Israel to take a low profile in a war with Iraq, even if Israel is attacked.
After the meeting, Bush said Israel had a right to respond if Iraq launched an "unprovoked"attack "tomorrow." But a White House spokesman later said the remarks did not indicate Bush's view if Israel is attacked in the course of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Sharon, for his part, reiterated his position that Israel would act to defend its citizens. Such statements that Israel must defend itself from Iraq may be cover for the quid pro quo Sharon hopes to extract in Washington: an American commitment to coordinate post-Iraq policy on the Palestinian issue with Israel.
Before the Bush-Sharon meeting, the administration presented the Israeli delegation with a blueprint for easing tensions with the Palestinians and eventually restarting diplomatic talks. The United States plans to present the plan to the Quartet next week.
The Quartet, meanwhile, has compiled its own plan. Both the United States and Britain have assured Israel that there will be no "imposed settlement" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon, however, fears a situation in which the powers don't formally impose anything, but exert enormous pressure on Israel to make compromises it finds untenable.
In broad outline, the Quartet envisions a three-year process with steps happening in sequence:
A general cease-fire.
An Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the Palestinian intifada began two years ago.
A further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The establishment of a Palestinian ministate under an international protectorate.
Talks on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and the transition to full Palestinian independence.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair already has called for an international conference whose agenda would, to a large extent, be governed by those ideas.
For months the United States and other members of the Quartet have been trying to find a way to back Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism while, at the same time, giving the Palestinians hope for a better future.
In his watershed June 24 speech, Bush tried to square the circle by calling on the Palestinians to elect new leaders not associated with terrorism, while holding out the promise of Palestinian statehood in three years if they did so. Now, with Israeli troops again occupying Palestinian cities, towns and villages, both the Americans and British have taken up the Palestinian humanitarian case.
The primary impetus no doubt is concern for Palestinian suffering. But the pressure also is intended to signal to the Palestinians that the United States and Britain are sensitive to their needs and can create conditions conducive to political negotiation.
The latest directive from Washington to ease conditions in the Palestinian territories, delivered by Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, was couched in exceptionally blunt language.
Sharon was accused of failing to keep his promises to ease the plight of the Palestinian population and the Israeli army was accused of ignoring settler violence against Palestinians.
In a private conversation with the Israeli general in charge of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Israel, was even more blunt: Israel was in danger of turning the territories into the "largest detention camp in the world," he said, according to Israeli media.
Cowper-Coles is one of the more outspoken advocates of an international protectorate transition stage. It would help separate Israeli and Palestinian forces, keep a lid on Palestinian terror, restore Palestinian civilian life, rebuild Palestinian civil society and create functioning institutions, he argues.
Cowper-Coles emphasized the need to build an efficient Palestinian security force that would give Israel the confidence to withdraw from territory it has taken in response to Palestinian violence.
"I agree if Israel pulls out of the territories there is a risk of terrorism flaring up again," Cowper-Coles said. "The only way to give Israel the confidence it needs to pull back is for there to be some sort of international supervision of Palestinian security forces as they reform and get a grip on security. It's unlikely that the Palestinians would be able to do it themselves or that Israel would have confidence in them doing it themselves."
Britain would be willing to provide monitors, observers and trainers, Cowper-Coles said. The United States and France have said they would be willing to do the same.
Sharon, however, is firmly opposed to the protectorate idea. He argues that there is too much potential for friction between Israel and the international force, which he believes would not be able to halt Palestinian terror attacks, but would impede Israeli efforts to retaliate.
Indeed, Sharon is worried about the international community trying to move too early and too fast on the Palestinian track. He fears Israel's interests may be sacrificed both before an attack on Iraq -- as America tries to build an international coalition -- and after the attack as America tries to rebuild strained ties with the Arab world.
Therefore, Sharon sees the main goal of Israeli diplomacy as coordinating with the United States what policy on the Palestinians will be after a war on Iraq.
Before he left for his meeting in Washington, Sharon made sure that arrangements had been made to hand over frozen Palestinian tax money and that the process of removing illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank had begun.
Pundits saw this as an attempt to convince the international community that Israel was ready to make constructive moves on the Palestinian track and ease Palestinian suffering.
At the same time, however, Sharon issued tough public statements about Israel's readiness to defend itself if attacked by Iraq. Sharon knows very well that the United States wants Israel to stay out of the war, and pundits say his public statements were intended to raise the price for Israel's compliance.
Sharon also wants to clarify the circumstances in which Israel would receive a green light from the Americans to retaliate against Iraq -- for example, if it was attacked with nonconventional weapons or suffered massive casualties.
In exchange for Israel's agreement not to retaliate against a conventional Iraqi missile attack, Sharon wants an American commitment on the Palestinian issue. Sharon especially wants to make sure the United States will stick to Bush's demands for thorough reform of Palestinian Authority institutions and the election of new leaders not compromised by terror.
Only then, in Sharon's view, can serious negotiations on Palestinian statehood begin -- and he hopes prior coordination with the Bush administration will help avoid future misunderstandings on that score.