Israel Bombings: Can Bush Respond?

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A suicide bomber blew up a crowded city bus in Jerusalem, killing 19

Israeli troops are back in Jenin, this time with no plans to leave. And Palestinian radicals have declared their intention to continue launching terror attacks inside Israel, no matter what Yasser Arafat says. Even as the Bush administration weighs what to say about the future of the Middle East, and when to say it, the situation on the ground is rapidly deteriorating.

Israel sent troops into the West Bank overnight Thursday in response to two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 26 Israelis over two days. This time, the Israelis came to stay, bringing mobile homes of the type commonly used by West Bank settlers to build a makeshift barracks in line with a tough new policy announced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel now plans to capture Palestinian Authority-controlled territory in response to each suicide attack, and will hold such territory until attacks end.

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Arafat responded by appealing for an end to terror attacks on Israeli citizens, but this was not the first time he's made such comments. Since the full-blown invasion of "Operation Defensive Shield," Israeli forces (rather than Arafat's PA personnel) have maintained ultimate security control over the West Bank, and Palestinian militants there have continued to attack Israelis despite repeated pleas to halt by Arafat and others.

Hamas and the grassroots militants of Fatah don't want to see movement toward a provisional Palestinian state any more than Sharon does, and the bombing campaign was clearly timed to coincide with a much-anticipated policy speech by President Bush, purported to include a call for a provisional Palestinian state whose final borders would be negotiated later.

The Bush administration's internal splits over Middle East policy have been out in the open over the past two weeks, with Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking in favor of immediate movement toward some provisional form of Palestinian statehood as a means of creating hope among ordinary Palestinians to counteract the despair on which the extremist organizations feed. But the White House has distanced itself from some of Powell's remarks, and more hawkish elements in the administration are adamantly opposed to any steps they would construe as "rewarding terrorism." The latest bombings may have exacerbated the internal conflict in the administration, and delayed the announcement of a new policy.

The problem for Bush, and for Sharon, is that the security situation is once again rapidly deteriorating, and there doesn't seem to be much Israel can do about it. The Israeli government knew Tuesday's bomber was coming, having put their public and their security services on high alert for an attack in Jerusalem. An Israeli police surveillance helicopter was hovering above the bus that exploded Tuesday. Yet none of that was enough to save the lives of 19 innocent Israelis, and Palestinian attacks are as commonplace now as they were before the Israeli offensive that essentially ended PA-control over territory in the West Bank.

Military operations have not brought the security demanded by Israeli voters, and a growing number are now putting their faith in unilateral separation from the Palestinians by building a wall. Construction began Monday on the first 80-mile stage of such a barrier that creates a major political dilemma for Sharon, because it mimics a border fence hewing closely to the 'Green Line' that marks the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank — and that's anathema to Sharon's right-wing political base, particularly the settlers who find themselves on the Palestinian side of the security fence.

The reason Sharon signed off on the fence was that Israeli security chiefs warned that the alternative was to commit whole army divisions to the West Bank on a permanent basis. But the new policy of taking and holding PA territory may now require just that, although it's unlikely to discourage violence against Israelis. Hamas and even the grassroots militants of Fatah oppose new negotiations with Israel and see the path of confrontation as bringing more rewards than negotiation. Many of those Palestinians advocating armed struggle will see the permanent return of Israeli forces to PA territory as sealing their case against engaging in U.S.-brokered peace efforts. And both the Islamists and Fatah have demonstrated an ability to maintain their terror campaign despite "Operation Defensive Shield."

Even as it endorses Israel's right to defend itself, the Bush administration is uneasy about the security fence and the proposed reoccupation of PA territory. Washington is concerned that the Palestinians and their Arab supporters will reject a unilateral move by Israel to define its borders with a future Palestinian state. And an Israeli presence inside PA territory nullifies even the provisional statehood being weighed by the administration. But for President Bush, the dilemma runs deeper — despite his administration's commitment to fight terrorism, he knows there's no military solution to Israel's security crisis as long as the Palestinians remain subject to Israeli occupation. But the provisional statehood idea has received a lukewarm response on both sides of the divide. Sharon says the time isn't right; the Palestinians and many of their Arab supporters want a firmer commitment on both timelines and a return to the 1967 borders. And President Bush's advisers are left searching for a viable Mideast policy amidst the daily carnage that once again threatens to erupt into a regional crisis.