Despite Zinni Mission, Little Optimism Over a Mideast Truce

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Israeli tanks pulled back ahead of Zinni's arrival

That grating sound echoing across the Middle East this week is the noise of U.S. Mideast policy being slammed out of reverse and into first gear. Having spent most of the past three months with its arms folded, blaming Israeli-Palestinian violence almost entirely on Yasser Arafat and sparing Ariel Sharon even pro-forma calls for restraint, the Bush administration has lately been scrambling to reinvent itself as an even-handed activist mediator. The President on Wednesday castigated Sharon's tactics, sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state and sent Marine General Anthony Zinni back to Israel to pummel the two sides into a cease-fire.

Reasons for Bush's newfound impatience with Sharon are not hard to find. The Israeli leader's escalation of military action in the West Bank and Gaza has substantially raised the Palestinian body count (163 Palestinians have been killed over the past two weeks) but it has failed to curb attacks on Israelis — 59 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks over the same period. Escalation has begotten only further escalation, with no end in sight. And with the U.S. now actively courting Arab support for a campaign against Saddam Hussein, the price of inaction had become intolerable for Washington — America's Arab allies warned Vice President Cheney this week that they currently see Sharon as a greater threat to regional stability than Saddam.

Zinni's cease-fire mission is in no small part to run interference for Cheney's efforts to recruit Arab support against Saddam, and the Israelis have adjusted their posture accordingly. Sharon has dropped his insistence on seven days of calm before implementing a cease-fire, vowed to ease travel restrictions on Arafat, and ordered Israeli troops out of the West Bank town of Ramallah. Still, the Bush administration on Thursday asked for more — an Israeli pullout from all Palestinian Authority (PA) territory. The Palestinians have long said that there would be no cease-fire talks as long as Israeli forces remained on their turf, and the U.S. call for Israeli compliance reflects the extent to which the political initiative has shifted back to Arafat.

U.S. pressure may not be the only reason for Sharon's climb-down. His failure to stem the escalating tide of violence had left him teetering in the face of plummeting poll numbers and mounting challenges from both right and left. Following the U.S. line allows him to reposition himself in the center, alongside his Labor Party coalition partners on whose support he will depend to stave off the collapse of his government as right-wingers defect — and hold his most dangerous challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, at bay.

Sharon's political decline has been mirrored by Arafat's revival. Three months of confinement by Israeli tanks worked wonders for his domestic political standing, and Washington's urgent need to stem the raging violence has required a rapid rehabilitation of Arafat in U.S. thinking. Arafat had long urged Washington to send back Zinni and resume its mediating role, but now the Marine general may not have enough to offer. Arafat is looking for activation of the Tenet and Mitchell cease-fire plans, with the bonus of U.S. observers being deployed to monitor both sides' compliance.

While Zinni will press Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian Authority territories, under the Tenet and Mitchell plans he's also going to have to press Arafat to disarm all unofficial militias in his domain. That may be a tough call. Hamas has vowed to ignore any cease-fire, and may well try and spoil Zinni's visit with more carnage on Israel's streets. But the bigger question concerns the fate of the Fatah militias broadly loyal to Arafat that have reclaimed the dominant role in the "armed struggle" from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These militias believe guerrilla warfare will end Israel's occupation of the West Band and Gaza. Arafat may well believe their effectiveness has helped restore his political fortunes by creating a crisis that forced the Americans and Sharon to reengage with him, and be reluctant to part with a strategic asset.

All the plans are simply interim steps aimed at reviving the long-term land-for-peace political negotiations that ended with Sharon's election. The Palestinians, European mediators and even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres have urged an immediate resumption of political negotiations along with the initial steps to restore calm. They believe that unless Arafat can demonstrate the existence of a viable peaceful road to Palestinian statehood and an end to the occupation, any cease-fire is bound to collapse. But thus far, resuming long-term political negotiations over Palestinian statehood has been anathema to Sharon.

Neither side today has much faith in the other's desire for peace, but neither side wants to be seen to be the spoiler of Zinni's mission. The despair on both sides may, in fact, provide the best hopes for Zinni's success. Still, after the vicious bloodletting of the past two weeks, it may take more than one Marine to keep the peace in the Middle East.