Bush Faces His Own Middle East Crisis

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An Israeli army armored personnel carrier drives through the Salem checkpoint

Israeli-Palestinian violence flared anew Friday, amid growing Arab frustration over what they see as the Bush administration's failure to restrain Ariel Sharon. Twelve Palestinians have been killed in clashes in Gaza since Thursday night, as gunmen have launched new attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers there, and Israeli tanks invaded the Rafah refugee camp. Gaza had been relatively quiet over the past month as violence raged on the West Bank, but Palestinian leaders there may be inclined to take the initiative right now, which would stoke the regional political fires that first forced the Bush administration to intervene two weeks ago.

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Many commentators in the region had expected an uptick in violence following the departure of the Secretary of State, who left in his wake what the Israeli daily Haaretz called "a dangerous vacuum" — no substantial movement toward ending the current violent standoff in the West Bank, and vague talk about a regional peace conference that has been skeptically received on both sides of the divide. Powell's efforts to reassure Washington's Arab allies of America's bona fides as a peace broker weren't helped by President Bush's remarks Thursday certifying that Ariel Sharon was in compliance with U.S. demands. Although Israel has withdrawn its troops from inside a number of West Bank towns, they remain deployed in self-declared "buffer zones" nearby and have shown on a number of occasions over the past week that they reserve the right to reenter those towns at will. The President, moreover, expressed understanding for Israel maintain its sieges of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and Yasser Arafat's offices in Ramallah, where the Israelis say wanted militants are holed up.

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.