The More Israel and the U.S. Change, the More Things Stay the Same

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Israeli border guards arrest a Palestinian protester in Jerusalem's Old City

President George W. Bush is about to get a crash course in Middle East politics — and Lesson One is that the region has a way of confounding the best intentions of U.S. presidents.

Faced by a dramatic escalation in Israeli-Palestinian clashes over the past week, the President on Thursday urged Israel to show restraint, but spent a lot more of his time demanding that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "stop the violence." Instead, the Palestinian leader called for the continuation of the intifada, and Friday saw intense clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Ramallah, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Bush, who has been sharply critical of President Clinton's efforts to choreograph the peace process, had hoped to take a more standoffish approach to the Israelis and Palestinians and focus instead on regional stability as a whole. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a way of drawing Washington in regardless, and President Bush sounded a lot like his predecessor when he told reporters Thursday that his administration was responding to the new crisis by working the phones to the region. He also announced that he would seek the help of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah in pressuring Arafat to rein in militants.

New characters, same story

What was most notable about Thursday's events, however, was the extent to which Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. all appeared to be stuck in the same strategic impasse that has underpinned the violence of the past six months.

For all his promises of a new approach to stamping out the intifada, Sharon has so far brought nothing new into play. He sent helicopter gunships to attack Palestinian Authority targets on Wednesday night following two Palestinian suicide bombings and the shooting of a 10-month-old baby — much as his predecessor had done following the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah last year. But Sharon's air strikes are no more likely to stop terror attacks and shootings than were Barak's. And thus far most ordinary Palestinians have seen few signs of Sharon's promised easing of the blockade and other forms of collective punishment.

For Arafat, no incentive for conciliation

To the extent that any strategy can be discerned on the part of Yasser Arafat, it's not likely to include fulfilling President Bush's demand that the Palestinian leader get on TV and tell his people to stop fighting. The reason is simple: Arafat has little strategic incentive to stop the violence right now, and probably believes he gains from it. In the absence of a negotiating process that holds out the prospect of achieving his cherished goal of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital, Arafat has very little to gain from simply getting along with the Israelis. During the Clinton years, upsurges of violence usually brought the Americans running and forced concessions from the Israelis. And even if both parties are now strenuously resisting that scenario, Arafat could well believe the escalation of clashes could improve his diplomatic leverage.

Even if President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon are in no mood to be seen as rewarding Arafat for stirring things up, Arafat may not be entirely misreading the diplomatic equation. The Arab leaders to whom the White House is looking to hold the line against Iraq and to lean on Arafat to rein in the militants have no sympathy for Israel's efforts to subdue Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And any upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence quickly brings people onto the streets of Cairo and Amman, demanding that their politically fragile governments take a harder line against Israel. So just as President Clinton found the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis unwilling to lean on Arafat to make compromises on Jerusalem at Camp David, President Bush will likely find them similarly inclined and far more willing to blame Israel than the Palestinians for any escalation of violence.

Dramatic as they were, the clashes of the last week are simply a product of the low-intensity conflict that has defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the wheels came off Oslo. And for all of Bush and Sharon's often valid criticisms of their predecessors, there's little sign that either has any program to transform the situation.