Why the Comings and Goings in Gaza Spell Trouble for the U.S.

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A policeman stands guard next to a house destroyed by the Israeli army

This is not the way the Bush administration wanted it, but the Middle East has a way of confounding the best-laid plans. Israeli tanks and troops rolled into Gaza Tuesday in response to a Palestinian mortar attack on an Israeli town, with some of their commanders vowing that they could stay for months. Then Colin Powell spoke, condemning the Israeli reaction to a Palestinian provocation as "excessive and disproportionate" — and within hours the Israelis had retreated. Asked whether the U.S. criticism has influenced the decision, Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN, "We pay very close attention to statements made by the United States and they're very important to us." Other Israeli leaders said the retreat had been ordered even before the U.S. statement, but the impression remained that Washington had cried foul, and Israel had retreated.

Even though the Israelis were back in a different part of Gaza Wednesday for a quick in-and-out operation, Tuesday's events reinforced the notion that Washington retains an ability to influence Israel's actions — and that's bad news for a Bush administration that had hoped to retreat from the intimate mediating role in the Middle East established by President Clinton. The moderate Arab regimes that already have peace agreements with Israel are increasingly alarmed by the escalating violence — which threatens not only regional stability, but also their own domestic political equilibrium — and have urged Washington to take a more active role. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan have recently visited the White House touting a peace plan in which both Israelis and Palestinians refrain from violence and respect existing agreements, eventually returning to the negotiating table to seek a comprehensive agreement. The subtext of their proposal appears to be that they'd lean on Arafat to rein in the militants if Washington can get Israel to exercise restraint. And Israel's speedy reaction to Washington's statement on Tuesday is likely to amplify Arab calls for the U.S. to take a more active role in refereeing the conflict.

Playing into Arafat's hands?

Yasser Arafat, of course, may take a different message from Tuesday's events. In the Clinton years, the Palestinian leader perfected the art of starting brush fires when negotiations weren't going his way in order to bring the U.S. fire brigade running. Even now, his strategy has been to allow and encourage Palestinian militants to fire rifles and mortars at Israelis, hoping to provoke them into heavy-handed responses that affect Palestinian civilians and draw international condemnation. Arafat may even interpret the Israeli withdrawal after a condemnation by Washington on Tuesday as vindication of that strategy.

Despite this week's dramatic escalation — Palestinians firing mortars from Gaza into Israel; Israel for the first time reoccupying territory ceded to Arafat under the Oslo agreement — neither Sharon nor Arafat has a strategy to transcend the increasingly violent impasse. Arafat can harass and occasionally provoke the Israelis, but he can't alter the strategic balance; Sharon can pound and pummel Arafat's resources but he can't subdue Palestinian militancy. So even as violence increases, politically the situation remains at a stalemate. And that's likely to mean Secretary of State Powell will find himself devoting more of his time than he'd intended to the intractable conflicts of the Middle East.