The visits here by Vice President Dick Cheney and peace envoy Anthony Zinni appear to be the first step in the Bush administration's readjustment of its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and toward terror overall.
Since Sept. 11, the administration has stood solidly behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's battle against the Palestinians, while ostracizing Yasser Arafat. To the Arab world as a whole, America's message has been, "You're either with us or you're against us."
But the administration seems to have realized that this position is not paying off. The United States is offering Arafat the inducement of his highest-level meeting yet with a Bush administration official, but in doing so, is putting the ball squarely back in the Palestinian leader's court. Despite a Palestinian suicide bombing in northern Israel that killed seven Israelis and wounded more than 30 on Wednesday morning, Cheney said he would be willing to meet with Arafat as soon as next week on condition that the Palestinian Authority president begins to fulfill steps demanded of him to effect an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.
Not only hasn't the Bush policy had any useful effect on the ground in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, it has made attacking Iraq -- already a tough sell to the Arab states -- an even tougher one.
Cheney had hoped that Zinni's presence here would take the Israeli-Palestinian war off the agenda in his talks with Arab leaders and leave him open to press for support for an assault on Iraq. But Israel seems to be all the Arab leaders want to talk about (or rather against) with the vice president. Everybody around here seems to be "preoccupied" with the issue, Cheney said in an interim summation of his tour of the region.
What this probably means is that life is going to get a little tougher for the Sharon government and a little bit easier for Arafat and the Palestinians. It stands to reason -- since Sept. 11, Bush could hardly have been more pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian. Said an adviser to Arafat on the eve of Zinni's arrival: "We feel that the Bush administration is one of the most hostile to the Palestinians in recent history."
Translating this shift into concrete policy, Zinni, while pushing the Tenet work plan -- a series of building blocks for locking in an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire -- is also trying to speed up a resumption of peace negotiations between the two sides. Keeping in mind that the goal is land-for-peace -- land being what the Palestinians want, and peace being what the Israelis want -- the Tenet plan is a purely pro-Israeli document. It requires the Palestinians to disarm the various guerrilla organizations, jail the killers and keep them in jail, effectively shutting down the Palestinian fighting force.
Meanwhile, it requires Israel to give over no land. The Mitchell recommendations, which pick up from the Tenet plan and get the two sides into peace negotiations, eventually requires Israel to freeze settlement expansion. It does not, however, require the relinquishing of any land, either. Yet, the Tenet-Mitchell process requires the Palestinians to stop the violence, which, in Israeli terms, means peace.
The Palestinians cannot be expected to accept such a one-sided deal, said Joseph Alpher, former head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the country's leading political think tank.
The Cheney-Zinni visit, signaling a changed balance in the Bush policy, has given new strength to the dovish voices in the government -- chiefly Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Peres, especially, has been pushing to reduce Israel's military actions against the Palestinians, while at the same time promoting peace negotiations.
The problem for Sharon is that he doesn't want to freeze settlements or start giving away land, knowing that the Palestinians, the Americans and everybody else want him to part with much more land than he has in mind. Sharon's peace offering to the Palestinians, said Alpher, is "essentially to freeze the status quo and call it a Palestinian state."
And while being pressured internationally for concessions, his domestic pressure is coming almost solely from the right. "War Now" is the popular slogan among those who want Sharon to dispatch the army to chase Arafat out of the territories and neutralize, one way or the other, the Palestinian Authority and all the terrorists -- tens of thousands of Palestinians, all told. The far-right faction of the government has just departed. The general impression in Israel is that the Sharon government's days are numbered and that new elections will likely be called before their scheduled time in October 2003.
Until recently, Sharon's diplomatic standing at the White House was extraordinarily high and Arafat's was on the floor. But this didn't do much good in safeguarding Israeli lives. Despite escalating Israeli military actions, supported pretty much all the way by the Bush administration, the Palestinians escalated in kind.
Starting with the Cheney-Zinni visit, the U.S. is steering its policy away from its sharply pro-Israel path and moving somewhat toward the Palestinians. Hope is that while this may be a diplomatic setback for Israel, it will bring a gain in security for Israelis.