Why the Middle East Keeps Dragging Bush Back In

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The unlikeliest beneficiary of the China-U.S. standoff has probably been Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon — because it has mostly displaced the increasingly alarming spectacle of Israel's attempts to bomb its way out of a security crisis from U.S. headlines. Almost every day for the last two weeks, Israeli tanks, mortars and helicopter gunships have rained shells on Gaza and the West Bank whenever Palestinians have fired rifles and mortars at Israelis or detonated bombs in their midst. And neither side has shown any sign of letting up.

In fact, the Israelis insist they're not simply retaliating — their policy is to intensify attacks on targets associated with the Palestinian Authority until Yasser Arafat's administration reins in Palestinian gunmen and bombers. "Palestinian security installations will be considered targets as long as security forces fail to prevent attacks on Israelis," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin last week. Israel's internal security minister Uzi Landau added that "the price we will extract from the Palestinian Authority will be intolerable."

Dennis Ross has been retrenched

Six months ago, such sentiments, let alone the actions of the past two weeks, would have seen Dennis Ross ratcheting up the frequent flier miles; these days Ross's job as U.S. special envoy to the Middle East no longer exists, and the escalating violence appears to have become "acceptable" to Washington as the background noise of an intractable conflict finding its way to some sort of equilibrium. President Bush did urge restraint on the Israelis two weeks ago, but more expressly demanded that Arafat make a concerted public effort to put an end to violence.

The Bush administration had hoped to stay out of the thankless task of mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and hoped to treat Israeli-Palestinian relations as part of a comprehensive regional policy for the Middle East. Yet it's precisely that perspective that may draw Washington back into a more active mediating role than President Bush might have cared for — or even than Prime Minister Sharon might be comfortable with.

'Incentivizing' Arafat

Right now, there's a growing danger for all sides that the current escalation creates a momentum of its own. From the very beginning of the peace process, Palestinian militants of various political stripe had rejected Arafat's proposal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza at the negotiation table, rather than by force of arms. Which was why a key component of the Oslo process was the requirement that Arafat's administration restrain those militants, working with Israeli security and U.S. intelligence to track them down, and lock them up. That system worked — with inevitable exceptions — for most of the Oslo years, but it has broken down along with Oslo since last summer. That's the reason the Israelis are targeting the PA directly in retaliation for Palestinian attacks. But while Palestinian militants certainly threaten to eclipse his leadership, Arafat may also be wondering what incentive he has to fight a bruising domestic political battle to bring them to heel in the absence of any prospect of realizing the political goals that took him into Oslo in the first place. Of course, the Israelis hope to create an incentive by making life "intolerable" for Arafat if he fails to act, but the collateral damage of that approach may ultimately make it even more difficult for the Palestinian leader to cooperate with Israel.

The situation is plainly increasingly volatile, and that's got to be a concern for the Bush administration. Washington quietly restored the CIA's role in supervising efforts to restore and improve security cooperation between the two sides after having initially attempted to retreat from that role, mandated by President Clinton after the 1998 Wye River talks. But the danger of combining behind-the-scenes dialogue with a heavy-handed security response were evident last week when the car carrying Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and a number of aides was fired on by Israeli forces at the entrance to Gaza, while returning home from a meeting with their Israeli counterparts. Israel later apologized for the incident.

Unsettled by settlements

And alarm bells plainly began ringing in Washington late last week when Israel announced plans to expand two West Bank settlements. The State Department immediately denounced the move as provocative and urged Israel to reconsider. And it's plain to see why: The settlements are illegal under international law, and their future had been subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Agreement. More important, perhaps, they're a hot-button issue throughout the region, where they're taken as a sign of an unacceptable Israeli expansion into Arab lands.

So while the Bush administration may have been prepared to cut Sharon some slack in regard to its military escalation, expanding settlements is a different matter. Indeed, President Bush's father had, during his presidency, gone as far as threatening to freeze U.S. aid to Israel in order to force a halt to the expansion of West Bank settlements. While it's unlikely that the current Bush administration would contemplate anything nearly as forceful, the concerns remain the same.

U.S. interests

President Bush meets Jordan's King Abdullah on Tuesday, a week after welcoming Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to the White House. The administration has emphasized that it plans to enlist the aid of these two key moderate Arab leaders in pressuring Arafat to rein in the violence. (Bush also needs their support maintain a modicum of sanctions against Iraq.) To be sure, each one's domestic political situation certainly gives him an interest in tamping down a Palestinian uprising that stirs up political turmoil at home by bringing people onto the streets to protest Israel's crackdown. But neither man is able to bring much pressure to bear on the Palestinians while missiles and shells are raining on Gaza and the West Bank. Even less so when Israel is planning to expand its settlements.

Egypt and Jordan are echoing the Palestinian demand that the U.S. take a more active role. And what they want, of course, is for Washington to rein in Sharon just a little. But that may be a tough call. The images of Israel punishing the Palestinian Authority with rockets and shells have played well with the Israeli public, which is more united behind its government than it has been for years by the impression that something is being done to tackle their security crisis. But whatever Washington's feelings about Sharon's objectives, the spectacle of Israel almost daily firing sophisticated heavy weapons in the West Bank and Gaza raises the political temperature for U.S. interests throughout the region.

President Bush may be starting to learn that watching from the sidelines is not a policy option in the Middle East.