Why Sharon's Victory May Keep U.S. Busy in the Mideast

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Israeli police investigate a car bombing in Jerusalem

"Every time I try to get out they keep pulling me back in...." Michael Corleone's reflections on Godfatherhood may apply equally to the U.S. presidency and the Middle East. President Bush had plainly hoped to disengage Washington from the day-to-day foibles of the troubled peace process, but Ariel Sharon's election as prime minister may make that difficult — because signs of a new Israeli-Palestinian crisis have already begun to emerge.

The region braced for a new upsurge in violence Friday after a car bomb on Thursday injured a number of people in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem. Even before the blast, relations looked set to deteriorate following the hawkish Sharon's election victory. Palestinians have urged the new prime minister to pick up peace negotiations where his predecessor left off, but Sharon made it plain Thursday that he has no intention of doing that. Rather than continuing Ehud Barak's negotiations with Arafat over Jerusalem, the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the rights of Palestinian refugees, Sharon simply wants to pursue long-term "interim" agreements to stabilize relations between the two peoples. In other words, to pretty much freeze the peace process in time.

Difficulties ahead

Slowing things down in the Middle East was exactly what the Bush administration may have been hoping to do, because last year's headlong rush by President Clinton to finish a deal before he left office may have actually helped precipitate the intifada. The State Department made clear Thursday that President Clinton's peace plan was no longer U.S. policy, while National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave notice that the new administration planned to be a more distant partner in the peace process. But there may not be much of a process if Sharon is to be taken at face value: The Palestinians plainly have little interest in hitting the pause button, let alone rewinding the process to where Sharon feels comfortable — after all, if they wouldn't settle for Barak's offers on the West Bank and Jerusalem, why would they settle for a lot less?

Sharon's answer, of course, will be that the Palestinians have no choice. And if his record is anything to go by, he won't flinch at spilling a considerable amount of blood to drive the point home if the Palestinians choose to continue the argument on the streets. And therein lies the difficulty for the Bush administration.

Few concessions

In the Clinton years, Washington had played fire brigade to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Arafat compensated for his lack of strategic leverage in the peace process by setting or fanning brush fires at crisis points, knowing that an upsurge in violence would bring the Americans running and earn him a few concessions. And when Israel's attitudes hardened during the Netanyahu years, Arafat found himself the recipient of unprecedented levels of official U.S. sympathy. He may be hoping to achieve the same effect with the new Bush administration. And the fact that Gulf War concerns prompted the last Bush administration to get tough with the Israelis over issues such as building new settlements in the West Bank has led the Palestinian leadership to expect that President Bush will be more even-handed than his predecessor.

As much as the Bush administration may balk at continuing Clinton's micromanagement of the peace process, an upsurge of violence sparked by a continued intifada and an Israeli crackdown may yet force the U.S. to get more involved than it might like to. Secretary of State Colin Powell has emphasized that Washington will view the peace process in the context of a wider Middle East policy whose priorities include rebuilding relations with the moderate Arab regimes that had backed the U.S. in the Gulf War — relations that have deteriorated badly in the Clinton era, not least because of the renewed Palestinian uprising. The need to rebuild those relationships out of concern over oil prices and to maintain pressure on Saddam Hussein gives Washington an urgent interest in averting a new upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence. And that, of course, will demand a more hands-on approach than the new administration had anticipated.