Restoring Mideast Calm is a Tall Order for the CIA

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If not "Mission: Impossible, we'd certainly use "Mission: Unlikely" to describe CIA director George Tenet's return to the Middle East. Tenet arrives in the region Wednesday, where he hopes to resume his role in coordinating security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, as an integral part of maintaining their tenuous cease-fire.

Chairing Israeli-Palestinian security meetings was a role first assigned to the CIA director by the Clinton administration following the Wye River talks late in 1998, and Tenet managed to earn a remarkable degree of trust from key leaders on both sides. But the role ended in the dying days of the Clinton administration as the CIA director found himself dodging Israeli air strikes as he struggled in vain to restore security cooperation amid escalating violence. The Bush administration had questioned whether refereeing troubled Mideast security talks was an appropriate role for Washington's intelligence chief, as it sought to reduce the hands-on U.S. role in an intractable conflict. But the Bush team has been forced to reassess that strategy as violence threatened to spiral out of control.

Parties less willing

But where the CIA director's last tour of duty in the region began at a time when the peace process was still on track and the two sides' security services were willing to cooperate in order to stop it being sabotaged by terror strikes, this time they're approaching each other with deep mutual suspicion, each armed with a long laundry list of prerequisites for restoring cooperation.

The Israelis are holding their fire waiting for Arafat to begin re-arresting the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists freed at the start of the current intifada. And Prime Minister Sharon is under mounting pressure to lash out — pressure that will grow considerably after an Israeli baby was critically injured Wednesday by a stone thrown near the West Bank settlement of Shilo.

Arafat's unpopular cease-fire

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, reluctantly embraced the cease-fire under considerable foreign pressure, putting it at odds with the sentiment of the Palestinian streets. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have signaled that they have no interest in a cease-fire, and even many key leaders in Arafat's own Fatah organization have vowed to continue their intifada. Given the unpopularity of his cease fire decision, Arafat is unlikely to begin arresting Palestinian militants in the interests of Israeli security unless he's being offered some form of political incentive, such as the implementation of the Mitchell Report's proposals for lifting of the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza and freezing Israeli settlements in those territories.

In the current climate, neither side can easily deliver on the other's basic expectations, meaning that Tenet will have his work cut out in simply sustaining the cease-fire. Also, any progress he does make could easily be wrecked by a single suicide bombing by Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which would likely bring a harsh Israeli response. With prison being their most likely reward if the cease-fire succeeds, the terrorists have plenty of incentive to sabotage it, and to send the CIA director home early.