Jay Branegan: I think the Israelis had for a while now been pushing the edge of the envelope as to what would be acceptable to Washington, and when they went into Gaza they finally found out where it is. Powell's response has given Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a pretty good idea of where the U.S. draws the line. Washington has in the past criticized some actions of the Sharon government, such as its announcement that it plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, but for the most part Sharon has had a pretty free ride and warm reception. That had certainly raised concern among a lot of Arabs, who had expected a more evenhanded policy from the Bush administration, having seen Clinton as too pro-Israel. But Powell appears to have decided that the situation was threatening to get out of hand. And at some point, to stay in the middle, you have to lean to one side. A previous set of comments on the violence from the Bush administration had criticized both sides but been a lot heavier on Arafat; this time they were heavier on the Israelis. But they've stuck with the policy of not inviting Arafat to the White House until the violence ends. It's not as if they've cozied up to the Palestinians. Washington still believes Arafat can do a lot more to stop the violence, and is sympathetic to the Israelis' complaint that they're victims of terrorism.
Are they at all concerned about creating the impression among Palestinians and Arab leaders that when Washington called a halt, the Israelis retreated? After all, that could raise pressure on the administration to resume President Clinton's "referee" role, from which they'd been trying to retreat.
There is a sense in which that's true. But the important thing is the matter of degree. The U.S. would like to see our Arab allies, such as Egypt and Jordan, do more to influence the Palestinians. Everyone has a role to play here, and the intifada causes them domestic political trouble, too. And those states are obviously asking the U.S. to do what it can to restrain Sharon.
Washington is plainly having to give more attention than it had expected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are they going to have to ratchet up involvement? Yes. Will they become as involved as President Clinton was? No. They're going to do the minimum possible, but that minimum has gotten bigger. Every administration comes in vowing not to get sucked in to the Middle East, and every administration ends up getting more involved than it had planned to. Because in the end you're left with a choice: Either you control events or events control you.