Why Bush Changed his Mideast Tone

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DOUG MILLS/AP

Colin Powell, looks on as President Bush speaks from the White House

With the flames of the Middle East threatening to burn any bridge to peace, President Bush on Thursday dispatched Colin Powell to the region to play fireman. The President urged Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities reoccupied over the past week in response to a wave of suicide bombings that has killed more than 120 Israelis this year alone. He slammed Yasser Arafat for failing to fight terrorism and demanded that Palestinian leaders step forward and produce results once Israel moves back.

The President emphasized he was under no illusions about Powell's prospects for forging a truce, but the administration's latest efforts came partly in response to mounting criticism over its failure to stop the region's slide into chaos. Bush's speech reflected the fierce debates within the administration over how to respond to the conflagration. He expressed sympathy with the goals of the Israeli operation, citing Israel's need to defend itself, but he called for its end on the grounds that it threatens to destroy the long-term prospects for peace. The President tore into Arafat for failing his people in refusing to stop terror attacks, but at the same time held out a carrot with strong calls for Palestinian statehood and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And he demanded that as Israel steps back, responsible Palestinian and Arab leaders step forward to act decisively against terrorism. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Bush administration's own zero-tolerance-for-terrorism ideology may have inclined it to give tacit backing to Sharon's operation once Arafat balked at the cease-fire terms offered by General Anthony Zinni. But the bloody chaos that unfolded as Israeli tanks and troops once again took control of towns housing almost one million Palestinians sparked such fierce international outrage that the administration found its wider interests under threat. As anti-American demonstrations burned across the Arab and Muslim world, the broader goals of the U.S. war on terrorism were plainly in jeopardy. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have certainly been among the beneficiaries of Israel's "Operation Defensive Wall."

Even more alarming to the Bush administration, though, was the prospect that Israel's operation might destroy prospects from a peace agreement and leave the region in a state of low-intensity war for the foreseeable future. Not only has the Israeli operation deepened the radicalization of the Palestinian population; it may also have mortally wounded the Palestinian Authority's security structures. And those security structures are an indispensable pillar of any cease-fire or peace plan, because they will be responsible for preventing attacks on Israelis. If the current offensive leaves their ability to maintain order impaired, Israel will find itself compelled to continue to police the recently reoccupied towns — a scenario that would reverse the entire Oslo peace process, and set U.S. policy in the region back by more than a decade.

It's not immediately clear how the administration expects Powell to succeed where Zinni failed. President Bush's unambiguous call on Sharon to withdraw will almost certainly force the Israeli leader to comply, but the absence of a clear time frame — and the fact that Powell will arrive only next week — is being interpreted in Israel as tacit U.S. approval for a few more days of militar action.

Walking Ariel Sharon back from the current escalation won't be easy. One of the toughest issues will be the fate of Arafat. Sharon has made isolating Arafat a key objective of the current operation, and has openly declared his preference for exiling the Palestinian leader. On Wednesday the Israeli leader even turned down a U.S. request for General Zinni to be allowed to visit Arafat in his besieged compound, although he relented on Thursday. Despite its exasperation and fury at Arafat, the Bush administration has maintained until now that Arafat shouldn't be exiled because he remains an indispensable player in any peace effort.

But the extent to which Sharon has personalized the showdown means that if Arafat simply manages to survive the siege of Ramallah, he'll proclaim it as vindication of his defiance — an outcome intolerable to Sharon. The Bush administration will also want to avoid appearing to reward Arafat's refusal to act against terrorists, but at the same time it wants to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and broker a cease-fire. That will be extremely difficult to achieve without Arafat's political authority, and that may be why Bush's comments on Arafat sounded like a final warning. Still, negotiating the terms on which Arafat leaves his underground bunker will require some delicate footwork from Powell.

President Bush's comments also contain some bad news for Sharon. Washington appeared to link cease-fire efforts to the broader goal of achieving Palestinian statehood, and he set out goals in this respect that will make the Israeli leader uncomfortable. Bush demanded an end to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, and insisted that Israel's occupation of those territories must be ended "through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338." Tough talk that suggests a parting of ways, sooner or later, between the U.S. and Sharon.

Nobody is expecting a breakthrough from Powell's mission. He's being sent mostly because not sending him may carry an even higher cost. Still, the President's comments and the Secretary of State's mission suggests the past week's events have stung Washington into assuming greater responsibility for the fate of the Middle East — even against its better political judgment.