WASHINGTON — Even as the White House pledges to salvage the Middle East peace process, administration officials are rejecting more aggressive steps being advocated by some lawmakers and former American diplomats, including the use of American troops.
The effort to step up American peace-making efforts follows what critics panned as a timid administration response to last week’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem and the wave of violence that followed. Bush administration officials told the Forward that the White House plans to wait for the violence to subside before redoubling efforts to kick-start negotiations and push ahead with implementation of the American-backed road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Administration officials described the current plan to revitalize the peace process as “more intense, more comprehensive,” adding that it would not include any steps, such as the introduction of American troops, which would constitute a change in existing policy. Critics are warning that without more aggressive action, the road map is likely to fail.
“The road map is unimplementable in its current form,” said Aaron Miller, who served until January in the Bush administration as a senior State Department adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations. “To make it a living, breathing document we’ve got to do serious diplomacy. We’ve got to change the nature of our involvement. We ought to pursue conventional diplomacy in a very serious way.”
Miller, who until now has refrained from publicly passing judgment on the Bush administration’s peace-process policy, criticized the White House for what he described as missing a valuable opportunity to make quick progress during the seven-week period of relative calm that ended with last week’s suicide bombing. “Now that is gone,” said Miller, currently the president of Seeds for Peace, an organization dedicated to forging ties between Jewish and Arab youth. “So, to get people refocused, it’s going to require something quite dramatic. And I am not sure that under these circumstances that’s going to be possible.”
One dramatic step being advocated in some American policy-making corners, though not by Miller, is the use of American troops to help stop the violence. Leading the charge on this front is Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Following last week’s bombing, Lugar reiterated his call for using American and NATO forces “to work with the Israelis and the Palestinians who want a state to get rid of the terrorists.” Speaking on CNN, Lugar said, “If we’re serious about having a situation of stability, a very direct action, I think, is going to be required.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, appeared to concur with Lugar. Referring to the notion of American military involvement, Feinstein said: “I hope we’re not there, but we may well be.”
“I mean, it’s clear to me you can’t have just a straight observer force,” Feinstein told CNN. “But you have to have some military entity that is going to be able to control the terror. Otherwise, the situation is going to dissolve into nothingness.”
Meanwhile, former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk used a New York Times opinion article to reintroduce his idea for an international “trusteeship” to govern the West Bank and Gaza, including an “American-led force to fight terrorists alongside the Palestinian security services.” Even the Zionist Organization of America, a staunch supporter of Israeli sovereignty over the territories, called on President Bush “to send FBI agents to the Middle East to arrest Palestinian Arab killers of Americans,” referring to the five American citizens who were among the 21 victims of the Jerusalem bus bombing last week.
Miller argued that before sending American troops or creating an international trusteeship, Bush should appoint a high-level presidential envoy to push the parties through bilateral and trilateral negotiations. In addition, Miller said, the United States needs to create a better system for monitoring both Israeli and Palestinian implementation of the road map.
Administration officials offered multiple explanations for the White House’s failure to move more firmly to head off what many see as possibly the beginning of the end of the peace process. First, they said, Washington is operating in “August recess mode” with many officials vacationing. Bush’s advisers were also worried that an aggressive move to bring the parties back to negotiations before the dead were buried would have backfired.
One former State Department official, Jon Alterman, defended the administration, arguing that “there aren’t a lot of good options” for resuming the peace process. The only viable option for the United States is “to lean on the Palestinians to do more and on the Israelis to do less,” said Alterman, who served until recently as a Middle East specialist on the State Department’s policy-planning staff. Now the director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Alterman also said that the administration must urge European and Arab allies to push Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to take tougher action against terrorists.
“Abbas is all we’ve got,” Alterman said. “If we burn the Abu Mazen card, we are in pretty bad shape for a while. If he can’t assert his leadership, then I don’t know where we will be able to go.”
So far, Abu Mazen has only ordered the destruction of several tunnels in southern Gaza, which serve Palestinian militants and criminals to smuggle weapons from Egypt. Bush’s Middle East affairs advisers, deeply disappointed with Abu Mazen’s performance, are facing a dilemma, American officials said. On the one hand, they are aware of the increasing constraints on Abu Mazen, including his continuing power struggle with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the popularity of Palestinian Islamist organizations. On the other hand, without swift and stern action against terrorist groups, Israelis will lose whatever faith they still have in the peace process.
Any motivation for Prime Minister Sharon and his right-wing government to make concessions to Abu Mazen is quickly evaporating, thanks to a widespread sense of despair and an increased public support for unilateral military action to crush terrorism. Following last week’s bus bombing, Israel launched two assassination attacks against Hamas activists in Gaza, sent heavy forces back into Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, conducted manhunts for extremists in several towns and broke off all talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Abu Mazen, who had succeeded in pushing Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups to agree to the cease-fire, was counting on the so-called “hudna” to improve the Palestinians’ quality of life. The hope was that such improvements would cut into the popularity of the “military intifada,” forcing Islamist rival groups to become political parties and revoke terrorism. Now that Palestinian militant groups have annulled the hudna, Abu Mazen’s government seems weaker than ever. Some analysts are already predicting its imminent demise.
In fact, Palestinian insiders said this week, Abu Mazen may soon decide to resign. Washington insiders said the administration is already considering possible replacements. One Palestinian leader who was mentioned by American officials as a possible successor is Ahmed Qurei, chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Qurei, better known as Abu Ala, was one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Agreements. He is not considered an Arafat loyalist.