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In Arab and European eyes, President Bush simply caved in to an Israeli leader who walked him back from demanding an end to incursions "without delay" to proclaiming victory because "[Sharon] gave me a timetable and he met the timetable."
The apparent endorsement of Sharon's moves in President Bush's remarks has infuriated the very Arab moderates whose demands for action had helped spur the administration to send Powell in the first place. Arab leaders increasingly believe that Washington is supporting the hawkish line of Prime Minister Sharon. President Bush's confidence in Sharon as a "man of peace" is not shared by Washington's Arab allies, and doubts over whether Sharon's actions are guided by any long-term program for peace are shared by many Israelis, all the way up to cabinet level. The Bush administration sees Arafat's refusal to make a strategic choice to renounce violence as the core of the problem; the Arabs see Sharon's reluctance to renounce Israel's claims to the West Bank and Gaza as the primary obstacle to peace.
President Bush currently appears caught struggling to maintain a coherent message in the face of competing pressures from hawks and doves inside his administration. The hawks see the conflict through the prism of the war on terrorism, and have supported Sharon's military response and his goal of ousting Arafat. The doves believe Palestinian terrorism can only be ended once Palestinians are able to see a clear path to statehood and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The hawks are leery of "rewarding terrorism" by reopening political negotiations; the doves warn that backing Sharon's offensive puts the U.S. at odds with the entire Arab world, undermining its war on terrorism. So, while President Bush's comments two weeks ago that combined denunciations of Arafat and terrorism with calls for restraint on Israel and a strong emphasis on the need to move quickly toward Palestinian statehood bore a strong dovish imprint, this week's endorsement of Sharon's actions suggest the hawks have had the President's ear while Powell was out of town.
On the ground the situation threatens to deteriorate. Even as the standoff continues, international aid organizations are expressing alarm over the humanitarian impact of the Israeli offensive on the Palestinian civilian population. The Palestinian Authority's ability to provide the basic services of a civil authority in the West Bank appears to have been critically impaired, if not destroyed. And "Operation Defensive Shield" has destroyed to much of the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus, on whose enforcement powers any cease-fire would rest. The Israelis are unlikely to tolerate a power vacuum in towns they characterize as hotbeds of terrorism, and that may leave them inclined to maintain security control from their "buffer zones" over the major West Bank cities, creating a de facto reoccupation that turns the clock back a decade to the pre-Oslo era.
Pressure on the Bush administration to intervene more forcefully and to consider some form of international security presence will continue to grow in the coming weeks, not least when Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah visits the President's ranch in Crawford next Thursday. Because right now it may take no more than a single suicide bomber in an Israeli city to set off a chain of events that plunges the region into chaos.