Mideast Turmoil Poses a U.S. Dilemma

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MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Jerusalem was a flashpoint of Friday's violence

Never mind eight years of President Clinton's persistent peacemaking; if George W. Bush ever does get the presidency he'll inherit a Middle East situation that would be familiar to his father. Peace looked to be the last thing on Israeli and Palestinian minds Friday as the West Bank exploded in a frenzy of violence that claimed seven Palestinian and three Israeli lives. And as both sides went into the weekend vowing to avenge their dead, the Israelis restored the siege of Palestinian areas that a European mediator this week warned could ultimately plunge the region into war.

An educated guess suggests there'll be no shortage of violence for Senator George Mitchell and his commission to investigate when they arrive in the region Monday, and that may mean bad news for both Israel and the next U.S. president. Israel has waived its earlier calls to postpone the Mitchell investigation pending a reduction in the level of violence, freeing the former U.S. senator and his panel of distinguished European leaders to begin their probe into the causes of the current violence that had been mandated as part of the Sharm el-Sheik cease-fire agreement. Investigations launched by Amnesty International, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and the Israeli peace movement have strongly criticized Israel for using excessive force in response to the Palestinian intifada, even though they have to varying degrees criticized aspects of Palestinian conduct. And if the Mitchell inquiry endorses that view, it would add weight to Palestinian demands for an international monitoring force to be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. Mitchell’s centrality to the process may even raise pressure on Washington to endorse some version of that proposal, which is roundly rejected by Israel. The senator's report is expected in March, just in time to land at the top of the pile on the new president's desk.

Pressure on Arafat

Even as violence looks set to escalate in the coming days, Yasser Arafat is also facing mounting pressure from his own people to rein in Palestinian shooters. The mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jalla and surrounding Palestinian areas have implored the Palestinian leader to ensure that gunmen stop using their residential neighborhoods for cover from which to fire on the Israelis. Residents of Beit Jalla have made no secret of their unhappiness with the continued shooting from the neighborhood towards the adjacent Israeli neighborhood of Gilo, believing that Palestinians are gaining nothing for the heavy price they're being forced to pay when the Israelis retaliate with tank and machine-gun fire. Arafat appears to have heeded their pleas by stepping up patrols to stop shooters, but the incident may be symptomatic of a creeping intifada fatigue among many West Bank Palestinians. Many ordinary Palestinians are beginning to complain that they're suffering tremendous casualties and economic deprivations in pursuit of goals that remain undefined.

Arafat may have started the week brandishing a machine pistol as a theatrical form of identifying himself with the "struggle," but many Palestinian militiamen are reportedly under no illusion that when he decides to return to the negotiating table, they'll be blacklisted by the Palestinian Authority. And, of course, the PA's record of corruption makes many ordinary Palestinians skeptical about how much of the aid currently being promised by the West and the Arab world will ever reach the Palestinian street.

But Israel, rather than Arafat, is the focus of most Palestinian anger — and the economic blockade and the heavy handed response of Israeli troops is only deepening their rage. That dims Ehud Barak's already slim prospects of achieving the pre-election peace deal that may be his last hope of holding off the challenge of Benjamin Netanyahu, and also nurtures Hamas, Islamic Jihad an other radical elements who have no interest in negotiating a peace agreement. So with an intifada in full swing, the right-wing Likud party poised to return to power and most of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations still underway happening in secret, President Clinton may have to scrap Middle East peace from his legacy talking points.