Déjà Vu in Ramallah

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Palestinian police inspect the damage to the Palestinian Authority headquarters

Megiddo is where the end of the world begins, according to Christian prophecy. It looked a little like that Wednesday, when a Palestinian sent by Islamic Jihad pulled his car alongside a bus loaded with Israeli passengers there, and detonated a bomb that turned it instantly into a flaming hulk, killing 16 aboard. Israel retaliated by sending tanks back into the West Bank city of Jenin and the offices of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Hours later they left, after blowing up three buildings in the compound. And while it may be premature to interpret the Megiddo attack as the opening volley of an Armageddon, the carnage there, and the response it triggered, serves as a sharp reminder that the violent impasse that forced the Bush administration reluctantly off the sidelines in April has yet to be resolved.

By sending troops and tanks to once again attack Arafat in his office, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is reiterating his demand that Arafat relinquish power as a precondition for progress. But targeting Arafat is, in many ways, a symbolic response for the Israelis to a day-to-day security crisis which has scarcely eased since "Operation Defensive Shield" and the ongoing Israeli operations in West Bank towns that have continued ever since. While some of them support the idea, Israel's security chiefs don't believe that getting rid of Arafat will stop terror attacks. The Palestinian leader's political popularity and authority has plunged precipitously since his last siege was lifted, because of the perception on the Palestinian street that he cut deals to secure his personal freedom while the circumstances of ordinary West Bank Palestinians continued to deteriorate in the face of a tightening Israeli blockade. And the militants of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the grassroots of Arafat's own Fatah organization have made clear their disdain for their leadership's calls for restraint in order to revive a peace process. Palestinian security structures, meanwhile, are the subject of intensive reform and resuscitation efforts led by the U.S., while Israeli troops continue to maintain effective security control over the formerly off-limits PA-run towns of the West Bank. So, while the Israelis may not have been seen around Arafat's compound for almost a month before Thursday, they've been in and out of Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and other Palestinian towns throughout that time.

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In light of the ongoing security crisis, the Megiddo bombing was not unexpected. Israel has been on high alert for weeks, its security forces acutely aware of the continuing threat of terror strikes. An acceleration of diplomatic activity in pursuit of peace — as has been seen over the past week, with U.S. envoys in the region and President Bush's plans to meet the leaders of Egypt and Israel in the coming days — typically serves as a cue for radical elements to launch new outrages in the hope of sabotaging any progress towards a truce. But the sophistication of the attack is a worrying sign for Israel, suggesting Palestinian terror groups may be raising the stakes by varying their tactics (until now, attacks on buses have been more typically carried out by bombers boarding as passengers).

The Megiddo attack highlights the limits of current mediation efforts by the U.S. and its allies. CIA director George Tenet has been meeting with Palestinian officials this week to press for the creation of a single PA security force dedicated to clamping down on terror attacks, and warning that if he fails to create an effective deterrent to terror attacks, Arafat will be left alone to face the wrath of Ariel Sharon. But the Palestinian leader insists that this will be possible only when the Israelis withdraw from PA territory. The PA roundly condmened the Megiddo attack, and ordered a roundup of Islamic Jihad militants. The Bush administration condemned the attack and said it underscored the urgency of reforming the PA security forces. But neither the roundup announced by the PA nor the Bush administration's emphasis on rebuilding PA security structures are likely to impress the Israeli leadership.

Israeli officials have long questioned the validity of U.S. efforts to revive a peace process by attempting to rebuild a PA security structure with the capability and political will to bottle up terrorists. And even in the best-case scenario, that would be some time in coming, more so as long as Israeli forces are operating inside the PA's domain. But the Israelis believe the U.S. vision of PA reform and dialogue is hypothetical as long as Arafat remains in power, and they're unlikely to return security control over the West Bank cities to the PA any time soon. The deployment of Israeli troops in what were, until April, off-limits Palestinian towns has now become so routine that the Israeli military now refers to them as "patrols" rather than "incursions."

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak holds talks with the Bush administration later this week, and plans to present detailed recommendations on a plan for peace via Palestinian statehood. Prime Minister Sharon is expected in Washington for consultations on Sunday. But the fine points of various contending peace plans and ideas on reforming the PA may now be overshadowed, once again, by the security crisis in Israel and the West Bank and a new siege of Ramallah. So instead of the diplomatic and security progress Washington had hoped for, the White House finds itself confronting déjà vu. Israelis are being terrorized by suicide bombers, Palestinian towns are occupied by Israeli armor, and Yasser Arafat is under siege in Ramallah. President Bush had been expected to outline a more detailed U.S. vision of the road to peace after meeting with Mubarak and Sharon. And you wouldn't want to be his speechwriter right now.