Israel: Pullback, But No Truce

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The scene in Jenin: Palestinians dig out of the rubble

Ariel Sharon has ended the first phase of his West Bank offensive, but its fallout will shake up the region for months to come — and imperil U.S. efforts to rekindle a peace process. Israel withdrew its tanks to the edge of more Palestinian towns Monday, although it maintained its sieges of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Israeli forces didn't fully leave the area; instead, they withdrew to self-declared buffer zones, from which they have continued to strike at will. But it's not only those ongoing operations that preclude a cease-fire just now. The more serious obstacle may be that the offensive has destroyed much of the security and civil administration capability of the Palestinian Authority, impairing its ability to enforce a truce.

U.S. efforts to cajole Arafat into declaring a cease-fire have once again proved fruitless — the Palestinians insist that all bets are off until Israel has entirely ended its incursions, and their security chiefs warn that the Israeli offensive has left them unable to resume cooperation with the Israelis. West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub, a sometime protégé of the CIA and one of Israel's favorite alternatives to Arafat, had a chilling message Monday: "I don't think it's possible for us, after this sea of blood, to talk about security coordination or any kind of coordination with Israel. It's over," he added. "Israel will never have security in the occupied territories."

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The Bush administration has been eager to certify Sharon as in compliance with Washington's requirements — adjusted substantially to accommodate the Israeli leader's initial recalcitrance — and move on in search of talks aimed at reducing regional tensions that imperil wider U.S. interests. But that may be wishful thinking, not only because of the problems of implementing a truce, but also because the political horizon looks as gloomy as the security one.

President Bush may have convinced himself that Ariel Sharon is a "man of peace," but the Israeli leader has made clear in recent days that his idea of peace is not one compatible with that of even the most moderate of Palestinian and Arab interlocutors. Sharon told his cabinet Sunday that not a single Israeli settlement in the occupied territories would be uprooted as long as he was prime minister. That would likely nix any prospect of serious political negotiations with the Palestinians or their Arab neighbors, who maintain that the basic requirement for peace involves Israel withdrawing to something approximating its 1967 borders. That's bad news for the Bush administration, which is trying to calm the Middle East in preparation for a campaign against Saddam Hussein.

The White House doesn't appear to be Sharon's priority right now. Not that he's immune to pressure from Washington — Sharon has made it clear that U.S. prodding is the only reason he's accepted a U.N. inquiry into the events during and after the battle that allegedly killed a substantial number of civilians in Jenin's refugee camp. But on Tuesday he suspended Israel's decision to cooperate with the inquiry, citing Israel's unhappiness that it is composed primarily of humanitarian officials rather than military experts. The Israeli leader's primary concern right now may be his own political survival, and the fact that his only credible challenger — former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is stalking him from the right has prompted Sharon to adopt ever-more hawkish positions.

Sharon's position on settlements, for example, could potentially force his Labor Party coalition partners to bolt. But that's a risk he may be willing to take in order to steal Netanyahu's thunder. On Sharon's left flank, the political fallout from "Operation Defensive Shield" may prove corrosive. While it's unlikely that Israeli forces deliberately killed Palestinian civilians in Jenin, the fact that Israeli forces found themselves flattening a swath of houses in refugee camp in pursuit of some 100 hardcore fighters is instructive of the type of war Israel faces in the West Bank. Those 100 fighters almost certainly had the support of the non-combatant population, and that support will almost certainly have been strengthened rather than weakened by the Israeli offensive. Israel's security chiefs have made clear that whatever success their offensive has had in disrupting terror attacks is likely to be temporary. And the doves are alarmed that the cost of the operation to Israel's international political and diplomatic position could be immense. President Bush stands alone among world leaders in expressing any understanding for Sharon's campaign. In the European Union, Israel finds itself the target of a storm of protest and a clamor for sanctions more familiar to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. And while the doves in Sharon's cabinet have pressed for a positive response to the Arab League's overture offering normalization of relations in exchange for withdrawal to 1967 boundaries, instead they've seen even those Arab states with which Israel currently has peace treaties threatening to cancel them in response to the Israeli campaign.

So Israel could soon be heading into an election, which would likely cloud prospects for short-term progress towards peace. And that combination is likely to put beyond reach the Middle East calm the Bush administration had hoped to achieve before going after Iraq.