Faint Signals of a Middle East Cease-fire, Again

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Israeli border police officers take a break from patrolling

Proclaiming itself committed to regional perspective in matters Middle Eastern was once a coded way for the Bush administration to distance itself from President Clinton's fruitless micromanagement of Israeli-Palestinian affairs. But that same regional perspective may be dragging President Bush a lot deeper into the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio than he'd care to go.

Although nobody's going to get overly optimistic about yet another round of diplomatic efforts to restart previously stalled cease-fire efforts, a new flurry of diplomatic semaphores from Washington, Berlin, the United Nations, Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah suggests a renewed attempt to contain the recent escalation of violence, and to follow the Mitchell Report's recommendations on triage for the stricken peace process. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer on Tuesday persuaded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to hold a new round of face-to-face talks, under his auspices, at some point in the near future.

So, where the Clinton administration had jealously kept mediating duties to itself, did its best to keep the Europeans and the United Nations on the sidelines and brought in Arab leaders only when they were needed to reinforce Washington's pressure on Arafat, President Bush will find himself drawn onto a more crowded field. It was Germany’s Fischer who had, in June, twisted Yasser Arafat's arm to declare a cease-fire following the Tel Aviv disco bombing that killed 21 Israelis, warning the Palestinian leader that he'd lose all-important European financial and diplomatic support if he refused. This time, the Germans are hoping to move the two sides closer to implementing the confidence-building mechanisms envisaged by the Mitchell Report.

Getting around Sharon's seven days

The German foreign minister has responded positively to a "phased cease-fire" currently being proposed by Peres. Designed to get around the stalemate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence that seven full days of calm must precede any implementation of the Mitchell recommendations, Peres's proposal suggests that a cease-fire be built on a region-by-region basis, with Israel easing restrictions on Palestinians in towns where Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has reined in militants. Arafat had previously made compatible proposals, and the fact that the U.S. has reportedly been pressing Sharon to ease up on his seven-days requirement suggests that the proposal may be gaining some traction.

Washington is coming under mounting pressure to take a more activist role in containing the conflict, not least from the very Arab allies with whom he’d vowed to repair relations after years of neglect by Clinton. The administration had been insisting that there are strict limits on what it can do as long as the parties themselves fail to bring about a cease-fire, but it received a dire warning last week from Osama El Baz, national security adviser to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. El Baz, on a visit to Washington, warned that Israelis and Palestinians "have proved themselves incapable of moving by themselves towards peace," and that their continued conflict threatened to unleash extremist forces that posed an imminent threat to U.S. allies and interests throughout the region. El Baz's warning found ironic echo in an internal strategic assessment by Israel's army, which was reported last week to have concluded that the current intifada would last for at least the next five years, and that it carries plenty of potential for plunging Israel into a wider regional war.

Driven by fear that the passions ignited by the ongoing Palestinian uprising could soon threaten their own somewhat precarious domestic political situation, the Egyptians are pressing the U.S. to work together with Arab moderates to lower the political temperature in the West Bank and Gaza. Essentially they're offering Arab assistance in pressing Arafat to tamp down violence if Washington will press Israel to show restraint and to make the concessions, in line with the Mitchell recommendations, that would give Arafat political cover to curb the militants.

There's nothing especially new in the latest round of diplomatic efforts — aside from a greater role being played by European diplomats, they're not dissimilar from the intervention tried by Presidents Clinton and Mubarak last November at Sharm El Sheikh, which produced a cease-fire agreement that, like the more recent Mitchell and Tenet efforts, meant little in practice. But as the months grind on and the body count rises, there may be elements on all sides who sense that what is occurring is far more profound than a temporary breakdown of the peace process. The clock is ticking for the peacemakers; the extremists have time on their side.