No amount of PA condemnation, however, is likely to impress or restrain the Israelis. The Rishon Letzion attack was a reminder that despite Sharon's month-long offensive in the West Bank, Israelis remain vulnerable to terror strikes in their own cities. Israeli right-wingers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is looking to eclipse Sharon, are likely to renew calls for Arafat to be banished into exile an option strongly opposed by the Bush administration, for fear of escalating the violence and further dimming prospects for peace. But even in Washington, the latest outrage may increase political pressure on (and within) the Bush administration against restraining Sharon or pressing him back to the negotiating table.
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The Bush administration agrees with Sharon and with most Palestinians on the need to transform the PA from Arafat's corrupt and authoritarian personal fiefdom into a more transparent, accountable and democratic body. But all have different ideas of what this may mean in practice. The Israelis want, primarily, to be rid of Arafat in the belief that an alternative leadership may be more inclined to accept Israel's terms. The Americans want good governance and an end to terrorism. And the Palestinians want to keep Arafat in power, but as the leader of an entity truly representative of the will and interests of its citizenry and therefore in all likelihood less rather than more amenable to the sorts of deals Arafat has embraced, however deceitfully, in the past.
The extremists of Hamas, meanwhile, know they have nothing to gain and plenty to lose from any new Israeli-Palestinian truce, and have therefore revived their traditional tactic of dispatching suicide bombers to put a stop to any dialogue. That's a direct challenge to Arafat's authority, because he and his officials have made abundantly clear to Palestinian militants in recent weeks that further attacks inside Israel right now will force the PA to launch a Palestinian civil war.
The Rishon Letzion attack, and the likely Israeli response, highlights the depth of the challenge facing the Bush administration's Mideast policy. Terror attacks allow Sharon to postpone the drive for a political solution; Israeli military responses create the excuse for Arafat to postpone the showdown with Palestinian militants required by any truce. The problem for Washington is that allowing the bloody impasse to continue imperils wider American objectives in the region and beyond. And yet the administration's own policy is far from coherent, as the relentless competition between the State Department and hawks led by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld results in continued mixed messages. Having resolved to reluctantly reenter the fray to protect its wider interests, the political cost of returning to the sidelines may have become prohibitive. One unintended consequence of the latest Hamas outrage, then, may be to draw the Bush administration even deeper into the Mideast political quagmire than it had ever intended to go.