WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration stepped up its pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to accept a cease-fire this week, pressure was mounting on Capitol Hill for an international military force to patrol the troubled territories and separate the sides.
The proposal, which Israel rejects and President Bush has not embraced, was endorsed this week by the two top Republican foreign-affairs voices in the Senate, John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Warner called on the Senate floor for a NATO peacekeeping force in the West Bank and Gaza similar to the force in the Balkans. Lugar, speaking on Fox Television, called for American troops to be dispatched to help the Palestinian Authority hunt down terrorists.
Their calls echoed similar proposals floated by a prominent roster of diplomats and foreign policy figures in recent days. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan last week urged Israel to accept the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to rein in violence in the territories, a proposal he first raised three years ago. Dominique de Villepin, France’s foreign minister, said this week that he would raise the idea of a peacekeeping force at a June 23 summit of European Union foreign ministers.
And Martin Indyk, who served as a top Middle East aide in the Clinton administration, this week reiterated his call for an international “trusteeship” over the West Bank and Gaza. Speaking on Israeli television during a visit to Tel Aviv, he added that international “special forces” should be sent to the territories to help combat terrorism.
The influential conservative pundit William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, speaking on a Fox News talk show, also voiced support for sending U.S. forces to fight Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel opposes any steps, such as peacekeeping forces, that would “internationalize” the conflict between itself and the Palestinians, insisting that the dispute should be solved in direct talks between the two sides. Israel has also resisted measures that would prejudge the territories’ eventual status and undermine what it views as its own legitimate claim to the areas. Placing foreign troops in the territories would compromise Israel’s claims to eventual sovereignty.
A trusteeship, such as the one proposed by Indyk, would remove the territories from Israel’s control and place them under international custodianship as a step toward eventual independence.
Israel and its allies were working hard to press the administration from the opposite direction in recent days, hoping to ease the growing demand for concessions. On Capitol Hill, 34 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the president on June 13 calling on him to give Israel a free hand in fighting Palestinian terrorism, as long as the P.A. cannot do that on its own. The letter, signed by most of the House Democratic leadership, questioned Bush’s criticism of Israel for its June 11 attack on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Bush, seemingly sensitive to the pressure, appeared to backpedal somewhat from his criticisms of Israel’s tough actions. Appearing June 11 at what reportedly was the first all-kosher dinner ever served at the White House, marking the opening of an Anne Frank exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bush reassured a crowd of about 100 Jewish dignitaries that he was committed to Israel’s security and reaffirmed his support of Israel’s right to self defense.
This week a group of top Sharon aides was dispatched to Washington to press home Israel’s security concerns, including the importance of continuing to target suspected terrorists. The aides, including Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, reportedly presented administration officials with an intelligence dossier documenting Rantisi’s direct involvement in terrorist attacks.
But the Israelis were met with a determined administration insistence on accepting some form of cease-fire with the Palestinians, including Hamas, which was believed to be close to agreeing to a cease-fire in talks brokered by Egypt.
Several informed observers, including former senior American diplomats and Republican congressional staffers, pointed to the declarations by top Republican senators Warner and Lugar in favor of sending troops to the territories as a possible warning sign from the administration to Israel to agree to some form of cease-fire. They said the administration may have used the two senior senators, both known for their close ties to the White House, to signal to Israel that the international community would not stand by idly if Israel allows itself to get caught in an uncontrolled spiral of violence. Spokesmen for Lugar and Warner declined to comment on their motivation for speaking out on the issue.
Judith Kipper, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the two senators would not have ventured public statements on such a sensitive issue without some clearance from the White House.
There are significant differences between the proposals of the two senators.
Warner is calling for a NATO peacekeeping force. Speaking on the Senate floor, he called “on both sides — both Israel and the Palestinians — to take the initiative to invite NATO forces to undertake a peacekeeping role and to help provide a measure of stability needed to allow the ‘road map’ process to maintain a momentum forward.”
He argued that such a force “would demonstrate a strong international commitment to peace in the Middle East [and] give hope to people on both sides that violence will be curtailed,” citing the “proven record of success with peacekeeping in the Balkans.”
Lugar, for his part, is proposing not a multinational peacekeeping force but an American force that would aid the Palestinians in rooting out terrorism. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Lugar said that the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement Hamas should be “right in the gun sights” of the United States. The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Lugar said, “simply does not have security forces that are adequate to take on Hamas, quite apart from even the territories being suggested for his security now.”
One Republican foreign-affairs aide on Capitol Hill described the week’s developments in Washington as a “reaction to an impasse.” Both in the executive branch and in Congress, “frustration and despair have reached unprecedented levels,” the staffer said. “The White House and Congress see a cycle of violence, and an eroding credibility of American policy in the region.” In frustration, he said, they both react in ways that are not fully thought-out, a reference to the peacekeepers proposal.
The frustration reflects the administration’s narrow room to maneuver, said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state and onetime ambassador to Israel who now heads the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “The only option for the administration is to get some of the practical steps on the ground started, which is what the CIA has tried to do before with Israeli and Palestinian security authorities, to just get something started, not with much public fanfare.”