U.S. Finds Itself Caught in an Awkward Diplomatic Dance Over Mideast

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Bush shakes hands with Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres

Ariel Sharon was elected on promises that he'd play the bad cop with the Palestinians, but he needed a good cop — that's why he tapped Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres as his foreign minister. So while Sharon, on Thursday, was promising new tough tactics in retaliation for attacks from Palestinian territory, Shimon Peres was in Washington talking the soothing language of peace and negotiations. But the bad cop is still the one on everyone's mind, and despite the language of accord between Peres and both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell following their meetings, the Israeli foreign minister's attempts at making nice suggest that the White House feels it is being dragged by Sharon's inflexibility into becoming an increasingly active diplomatic player in the Mideast conflict — a role that it has made clear it would rather avoid.

The Peres visit has already peeved the Palestinians, who are incensed that the White House has twice hosted Israeli leaders in the first four months of the Bush administration, while Yasser Arafat has not yet been invited. "The U.S. can't keep listening only to the Israeli side," a senior Palestinian official said in Washington. The administration has been holding back on an invitation as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leader to rein in militants operating from his territory. But the Bush administration remained equally cold to Peres's suggestion that it declare Arafat's Fatah movement a terrorist organization, thereby forcing the PLO to close its diplomatic offices in Washington and cutting off funds raised in the U.S.

The purpose of Peres's mission has been to convey Israel's reservations over a cease-fire proposal floated by Egypt and Jordan, which would require the Palestinians to take steps to end attacks from their territory, while Israel would lift its blockade of the Palestinian territories, withdraw its troops to the positions in which they'd been deployed last September before the current uprising, and freeze the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. If the resultant cease-fire brokered among the security teams on both sides could be sustained for four weeks, political negotiations would resume. The Israeli government had initially rejected the proposal out of hand, but began to engage with it when Washington showed interest.

Israel certainly has plenty of reason for skepticism, even if not all of its reservations would be acceptable to the United States — Israel rejects a blanket freeze on settlement expansion, for example, but the U.S. has never been sympathetic to Israel's efforts to build settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. But Peres is on firmer ground when questioning what concrete and verifiable steps Arafat would be required to make to reduce violence. Arafat's political authority in the West Bank and Gaza is clearly not what it was even a year ago, when no one dared publicly question his orders — recently, his calls to halt mortar attacks and to disband local committees coordinating armed activities between Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and his own Fatah movement have not only been ignored, they've been openly challenged. He may be reluctant to risk further diminishing his power by trying to rein in Palestinian militants in the absence of any tangible gains from the sacrifices ordinary Palestinians have been forced to make as a result of the intifada he initiated last October. So the Israelis have plenty of reason to ask just how the proposed cease-fire is going to stop Palestinian attacks.

But the Palestinian side has ample cause to be skeptical of the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, too. Where the Israelis' prime concern is halting the violence, Arafat's priority remains the "final status" negotiations over Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, refugees and other hot-button issues that collapsed at Camp David. But both Sharon and Peres have made abundantly clear that the offers Israel made last year have been withdrawn, and despite the cease-fire proposal's suggestion that negotiations resume where they left off last year, Israel has no interest right now in even discussing the final status issues left unresolved by Oslo. "There is today no solution to these problems that would be acceptable to both sides," Peres told a New York media briefing earlier this week. "If you bring these issues to the table when there is no solution possible, there's nothing you can do. Except to wait for a better time." That certainly echoes Sharon's stated belief that a comprehensive peace agreement is not for at least a decade, and that his focus will be on long-term "interim" non-belligerency agreements. But Arafat has little interest in non-belligerency in the absence of the political goals he was pursuing through "final status" talks.

Both sides, then, may be more inclined to allow the conflict to simmer, in the hope that the process of attrition will wear down the other side. But that doesn't work for Israel's moderate Arab neighbors, for whom the ongoing intifada poses a domestic political crisis, nor for Washington, whose overriding concern is regional stability. And that may be what brought Peres to Washington this week. But while his discussions in Washington were over cease-fire terms — on the ground in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza — nobody, right now, is talking seriously about peace.