Mideast Perils Mount for Bush

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Powell joined foreign leaders in calling for a Middle East peace conference

President Bush may be calling on Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon to lead the way to Middle East peace, but their progress will largely depend on the extent of Washington's own commitment to enforce a solution. The Bush administration has urged Arafat to end terror attacks on Israelis and warned this is his last opportunity for peace. Bush will host Sharon at the White House next week, hoping to generate momentum for an international peace conference to be convened during the summer. But despite official optimism about new prospects for peace, there's little evidence thus far of significant changes in the Israeli and Palestinian strategic agendas.

The situation in the West Bank has reverted to what it was before "Operation Defensive Shield" — and even then not entirely. Israeli forces remain inside Bethlehem and on the perimeter of many other Palestinian cities, where they continue almost daily to launch new raids in response to perceived security threats. And Thursday's vow by Hamas to resume attacks on Israelis suggests there won't be any shortage of those.

The basic security deadlock remains: Israel reserves the right to enter Palestinian cities and kill or arrest those it deems a security threat, and under those circumstances the Palestinian Authority refuses to even call for a cease-fire. Moreover, there's considerable skepticism over whether Arafat's battered security structure could actually enforce such a cease-fire even if he chose to call one. But the ongoing Israeli security operations and the potential for a violent split among Palestinians may limit Arafat's willingness to dance to Washington's tune.

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The Palestinian Authority had in recent weeks won a temporary agreement from Hamas and other radical groups, in the interests of Palestinian unity, to concentrate their attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than sending bombers into Israel. But such agreements are unlikely to impress the Israelis and Americans, and they're unlikely to be more than temporary. Hamas is well aware that it will be the first casualty of any cease-fire — the fact that Arafat secured his own release by handing over to American and British jailers six men wanted by Israel has not been lost on Palestinian militants, and in order to enforce a truce Arafat would have to be willing to launch a Palestinian civil war.

Arafat faces growing domestic pressure to reform the Palestinian Authority, dispensing with his corrupt, authoritarian, personality-cult leadership style and make his administration more democratic and accountable. That could just as easily be a blessing as a curse for American and Israeli efforts to cut deals with the Palestinians, because the median of Palestinian public opinion right now is significantly more militant than Yasser Arafat.

The domestic political restraints on Ariel Sharon are even more pronounced than those on Arafat. Bush wants the prime minister to enter negotiations over Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, but what Sharon wants is to build buffer zones in those territories and enter only into "long-term interim agreements" — a notion dismissed out of hand by Palestinian and moderate Arab leaders, who have embraced a consensus for peace with Israel on the basis of some version of its 1967 borders. That's a prospect Sharon has ruled out, and Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge from the right for leadership of the Likud party gives him little room to even appear flexible. The Likud central committee is expected, two weeks from now, to reject any prospect of Palestinian sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean — in other words, to essentially rule out a political settlement. At a moment when President Bush needs Sharon to offer the Palestinians more than he ever has done, he's already under fire for the Ramallah deal and his very political survival may require recalcitrance.

Few observers believe Sharon is inclined to embrace anything even close to the proposals discussed at Camp David and later at Taba, but neither Arafat nor his Arab backers are likely to settle for less. Still, Sharon may be betting on Arafat's inability to keep his end of any deal to ease pressure on Israel to deliver a political solution.

The Israeli leader may also be counting on Bush being restrained by his own domestic political considerations. The example of Bush the Elder has been cited as a cautionary tale of the political perils attached to a first-term president putting pressure on Israel, and the Christian Right has taken a ferociously pro-Israel turn since the first Bush administration. Even as the President spoke this week of ending the occupation of the West Bank and creating a Palestinian state, Dick Armey, the leader of his own party in the House of Representatives urged Israel to "grab the whole West Bank" and expressed his belief that "the Palestinians should leave." With key figures of his core support base capable of so blithely endorsing ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, the President's own political ability to frog-march the Israelis and Palestinians into an agreement may be limited.

And if President Bush's hands are tied, the prospects for peace-by-conference are negligible in the face of the chasm between the basic positions of the current Israeli leadership and the moderate consensus in the Arab world. The interventions of the past couple of weeks mark a resumption of active U.S. stewardship of the peace effort, but the requirements of that role — and the attendant political risks — can only grow. For if the Arab world comes to believe that the objective of the current initiatives is simply to keep the two sides talking while the U.S. goes to war with Iraq, the political fallout in the Middle East could be catastrophic.