Talks and Terror in the Middle East

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Colin Powell meets with foreign leaders on the Mideast peace process

Conventional wisdom once held that a terror attack on Israeli civilians on a day when diplomats were meeting to discuss the fate of the Middle East was a deliberate attempt by extremists to disrupt the peace process. That theory may no longer apply.

Two Palestinian suicide bombers killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv, late Wednesday, one day after an ambush on a busload of Israeli settlers on the West Bank left seven dead. But although the latest attacks coincided with Mideast talks in New York between representatives of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, their purpose is unlikely to have been simply to derail diplomacy — because neither the extremists nor anyone else in the Middle East have much reason to suspect that the current round of talks will have much significance for the situation on the ground.

The latest wave of attacks ended a three-week respite that has accompanied Israel's reoccupation of most of the major West Bank cities in the hope of uprooting terror networks. Israel had taken that lull as a sign of the effectiveness of its military action, but Palestinian militants are clearly feeling pressure to demonstrate that they have not been silenced. Israel blamed the Palestinian Authority for the attacks, although given the fact that most of the major West Bank towns are already in the hands of the Israeli military and under 24-hour curfew, it's not yet clear how the government of Ariel Sharon plans to retaliate.

In New York on Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell met fellow diplomats from the "Quartet," which coordinates Western mediation efforts into the conflict, to discuss ways of reviving the peace process within the limits recently set out by President Bush. The President's specific demand that Yasser Arafat be ousted as a precondition for diplomatic progress highlighted the differences between Washington and its allies on how to proceed. The Russians and Europeans insisted they would continue to work with Arafat as long as he remains the elected leader of the Palestinians, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan echoed the sentiment by insisting that it was up to the Palestinians to choose their leaders. The emerging compromise appears to be that Arafat should be kicked upstairs by redefining the Palestinian Authority presidency as a ceremonial role and transferring effective power to a prime minister and cabinet members. But there's no sign, so far, that Arafat himself is ready to be turned into the Queen Mother.

Arafat's future wasn't the only point of difference between Washington and its partners. They certainly agree on the urgent need for Palestinian reform, particularly of its security services, for a clampdown on terrorism and for democratic elections and for transparency in the disbursement of aid funds. But while the U.S. endorses the Israeli view that these changes must occur before the Israelis withdraw from recently reoccupied Palestinian towns, the other Quartet members have expressed doubt that the shared goals will be achieved under Israeli occupation. And the Quartet partners want to move quickly to create a Palestinian state as a basis for resolving the conflict, rather than follow the more drawn-out timeline set out by President Bush.

The Quartet partners remain committed to positions articulated by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the President overruled them in his June speech. But with the U.S. remaining the only party with the leverage to transform the situation, the partners have chosen to remain engaged with the U.S. despite their strong and public disagreements with the Bush position. Not unlike the protagonists of a troubled negotiation process, the Secretary of State and his Quartet partners found themselves forced to concentrate primarily on areas of agreement, such as reform of the Palestinian security services. And the latest terror attacks underscore the urgency of that challenge.

Still, there's little in the Quartet discussions that offers much prospect of any change in the situation. Prime Minister Sharon has made clear that Israel has no interest in political negotiations as long as Yasser Arafat is around — a position now backed by the Bush administration — but Arafat is going nowhere fast. New Palestinian elections have been called for early next year, but the Palestinians have insisted that no poll can be held as long as Israel's army holds West Bank cities under siege. But the Israelis say they aren't going anywhere until those elections have been held, and that their reoccupation of those cities is essential to protect Israelis from terror attacks. Palestinian militants, meanwhile, are plainly determined to keep up their attacks despite Israel's presence.

The logjam won't be broken without a concerted international push, and the Bush administration has signaled it has no intention of weighing in. That could change, of course, if violence once again spirals to levels that foment crisis in Arab capitals and threatens to turn regional allies against an invasion of Iraq. But as of now Washington's preconditions for moving to Palestinian statehood have essentially put the peace process on the backburner.

The diplomats met in New York, but nobody's expecting any real work to be accomplished this summer. As it is, the Bush administration is increasingly absorbed by the economy and corporate scandals at home, and the Iraq campaign abroad. With summer's end comes the Jewish holiday season and the U.S. domestic electoral campaign, and then Israeli party primaries and, supposedly, Palestinian elections and (many in the region suspect) a U.S. invasion of Iraq. So, for those Palestinians traditionally inclined to derail the negotiations, it's evident that this particular peace train isn't likely to leave the station any time soon. Which means it's unlikely that Tuesday's Quartet meeting featured in the motives for the latest attacks. Indeed, Israeli authorities point out that their forces have successfully interdicted scores of would-be attackers over the past three weeks. It was only a matter of time before some of them got lucky. Previous efforts to resolve the conflict have certainly been taken as an incentive for extremists to strike. Leaving the matter unresolved, however, does nothing to diminish that incentive.