Tel Aviv Terror a Reminder of a Bloody Stalemate

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The two blasts exploded near the old Tel Aviv bus station and a nearby pedestrian mall

When he first began pushing for regime change in Iraq, President Bush was told by allies in the Middle East and Europe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a higher priority — and that left untended, it could jeopardize his broader goals in the region. But Administration hawks countered that installing a more pliant regime in Baghdad would dramatically change the region's political climate, and actually facilitate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sunday's twin suicide bombings that killed 22 people in Tel Aviv even as the U.S. moved to complete preparations for an Iraq invasion is a stark reminder that both hypotheses may soon be tested.

The Tel Aviv terror attack was not unexpected. Indeed, the Israeli authorities had been aware of a general threat, and had worked hard to interdict the bombers who traveled from the West Bank. Israel security officials say that despite Israel's reoccupation and continued military operations throughout the West Bank for the past eight months, they still face up to 40 specific threats a week — and some are bound to get through.

While Sunday's attack brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the headlines for the first time in some six weeks, violence has in fact been a daily staple of the current stalemate for months. Some 65 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza since December 1, and while the Tel Aviv bombers may have carried out the first terror attack inside Israel in six weeks, attacks on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are a daily occurrence. A White House spokeswoman dubbed Sunday's attack an attempt to "derail the peace process," but that sounded like language from a different era: Israelis and Palestinians know there is no peace process to speak of, right now, only vague talk about a "road map" — yet to be released — that both sides ought to follow. But the basic stalemate remains the same: Sharon refuses to negotiate or consider any political process until Palestinian attacks cease and Arafat has been removed (a position apparently accepted by the Bush Administration); Arafat has no intention of going anywhere, the Palestinian leadership have proved incapable of reining in terrorism and the continued occupation of the West Bank by Israeli troops renders hypothetical all discussion about Palestinian political and security reform.

That stalemate has European and Arab allies — and even Israeli doves — exasperated over the refusal of the Bush Administration to aggressively pursue a peace plan. Instead, the Administration has broadly backed Sharon's crackdown on Palestinians and his insistence on an end to violence as a precondition for any political process, while occasionally drawing red lines such as insisting that Sharon refrain from banishing Arafat from the West Bank.

Arafat condemned the latest attack, but his political injunctions against killing civilians inside Israel have had little impact in recent months. The latest bombings were perpetrated by members of a militia based in his own Fatah movement, and were carried out even as Palestinian and Egyptian leaders meeting in Cairo were engaged in tough negotiations around a pact to end attacks inside Israel, so as to avoid stampeding Israeli voters to the right.

Britain, Washington's closest ally on Iraq, has been sharply critical of the Bush Administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Prime Minister Tony Blair had organized a high-level conference in London this month to discuss rapid movement toward a "final status" agreement, a course firmly rejected by Sharon. Mindful of that, the British leader also showed his support for Sharon's opponent in this month's Israeli election, dovish Labor Party leader Amram Mitznah, by inviting him to 10 Downing Street. Following Sunday's bombing, however, Sharon banned Palestinian representatives from traveling to Blair's conference, drawing an angry response from London. Sharon won't mind, of course, as long as he keeps the White House in his corner. And that may mean treading cautiously in response to the latest bombing.

The last thing Washington needs on the eve of an Iraq war is another large-scale Israeli military operation in Palestinian cities to set the Arab street alight. Last year, following a Passover terror attack that killed 29 Israelis, Sharon launched "Operation Defensive Shield," which involved reoccupying all of the West Bank's major Palestinian population centers. The resulting Arab outraged sabotaged the efforts of Vice President Cheney, then on a tour of the region to win Arab support for invading Iraq, and prompted the administration to send Secretary of State Powell to the region on a peace mission whose half-hearted nature reflected the sharp divisions in the administration over how far to back Sharon. This time, of course, concern for U.S. objectives may restrain the Israeli prime minister — at least until the Stars and Stripes flutter in the Baghdad breeze.

Israel's initial responses — air strikes in Gaza, closure of three West Bank universities, travel restrictions on Palestinian officials — are certainly comparatively muted, given that this was the most serious terror attack since the one that prompted the full-blown armored invasion of the West Bank last March. But Washington's concerns may not be the only reason: Israeli forces hold most Palestinian towns on the West Bank under siege and conduct regular raids and assassinations targeting suspected terrorists; they launch air strikes against leaders of radical groups and any facilities suspected of providing assistance to terror attacks; they bulldoze the homes of known militants and impose constant curfews and closures on whole towns and cities. In other words, there may not be many more military options to counter terror attacks than those Israel is already taking.