Mideast Flare-up Threatens Anti-Terror Coalition

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Israeli soldiers search a house seized by Palestinian gunmen in Alei Sinai

There's no surprise about the Bush administration's support for the principle of a Palestinian state. The idea is no longer particularly controversial, even in Israel. But the latest outbreak of violence, sparked by a Hamas raid on an Israeli settlement in the Gaza strip, highlights the uphill battle this administration faces in its increasingly urgent efforts to restart the peace process that would achieve such statehood.

Ten people have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian clashes in different parts of the West Bank and Gaza since Tuesday, when Hamas gunmen entered entered an Israeli settlement in Gaza and killed two teenagers. The latest upsurge in violence despite renewed cease-fire commitments by both sides will be deeply troubling to the Bush administration. Because Israeli-Palestinian violence typically translates into strong anti-American feelings on the streets of Arab capitals whose support for the anti-terrorism coalition is vital.

Although President Bush's Monday announcement of support for Palestinian statehood will be widely interpreted as a concession to Arab sensitivities, there's nothing particularly new about it — a de facto a recognition of the Palestinians' right to statehood has undergirded both U.S. and Israeli policy in the last decade. President Clinton explicitly endorsed the principle late last year, while Israel's last two Labor Party prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, implicitly accepted it as a basis for the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians. Oslo was based on the premise of a "two-state" solution to the half-century of conflict. At Camp David, Israelis and Palestinians were not negotiating over whether there would be a Palestinian state, but over the whereabouts of its borders and capital, and the scope of its sovereignty.

President Bush's public endorsement of the principle is, nonetheless, a timely signal that his administration plans to embark on a more energetic, even authoritative drive to restart the stalled peace process. Although the details remain under wraps, the administration had reportedly been planning even before the September 11 attacks to lay out elements of its vision of a final-status peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinians. And that, of course, would mark a major turnabout on President Bush's earlier reluctance to be drawn directly into trying to solve the intractable conflict.

But despite renewed political will, reviving the peace process remains as difficult as it is indispensable to Washington's wider agenda. Although Yasser Arafat has enthusiastically welcomed a more active U.S. role and has been quick to proclaim a new cease-fire, Tuesday's Hamas attack in Gaza is a stark reminder of the extent to which Arafat's political authority has ebbed over the past year. Arafat condemned the attacks as an "assault on the cease-fire" (and by extension, on his authority) and vowed to arrest the perpetrators. But the Palestinian leader may be facing the toughest test yet of his domestic political standing — opinion polls find upward of 80 percent of Palestinians in favor of continuing the intifada, and the once unthinkable, that is, open defiance of Arafat's edicts, is now commonplace not only among the radical Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but even among the grassroots structures of the Palestinian leader's own Fatah organization. The militants, who have no interest in seeing Arafat return to the negotiating table, have a powerful "veto" in the form of ongoing attacks that draw Israel's tank and missile fire and maintain the cycle of violence.

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, for his part, has plainly had to have his arm twisted even to go along with the latest cease-fire effort — it reportedly took a week of daily phone calls from Washington to convince him to allow last week's meeting between Arafat and foreign minister Shimon Peres. Sharon's labeling of Arafat as "our Bin Laden" and the 16 incursions his forces launched into Palestinian-controlled territories in the week following September 11 suggest he'd expected the terror attacks would create a diplomatic climate more favorable to a military escalation against Arafat.

In that, he was wrong. U.S. pressure may have forced both Sharon and Arafat into a cease-fire, but it's hardly a comfortable fit. The truce appears to be buckling under pressure of the renewed fighting, and even if it holds it becomes quickly untenable unless it leads to renewed political negotiations — hence the U.S. statement on Palestinian statehood. But having opposed Oslo from the outset and having voided the deal offered to Arafat by his predecessor, Sharon appears to have very little to bring to the political negotiating table. And after a year in which the intifada has demanded heavy sacrifices of Palestinians, Arafat would struggle to settle for any less than he was offered by Barak after Camp David.

But long before they even get to peace talks, the two sides are struggling to hold on to a cease-fire. And that creates a crisis for a Bush administration that, more than anything else right now, needs to be seen to be doing something about the peace process. Unfortunately, for their own reasons, the radicals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are feeling the same pressure.