Zinni needs a stronger mandate

United States envoy Anthony Zinni launched his third mission to the region at a time of unprecedented escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence that fully justified his arrival. Yet the visit began under mixed circumstances.

On the positive side, Zinni encountered a willingness by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to forego his demand for seven days total quiet, and to establish a kind of “diplomatic” committee to balance the Israeli-Palestinian security committee. The Saudi initiative to exchange full withdrawal for normalization or “full peace” was also helpful, insofar as it hinted at greater Arab support for a successful process.

On the other hand, the time gap between announcement in Washington of the decision to send Zinni, and his actual arrival, was seen in many circles as enabling Israel to complete its operation of cleaning out terrorist elements in refugee camps in Ramallah, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. This meant that the nearly inevitable bloody Palestinian retaliation against Israeli civilians was likely to take place during, rather than prior to, the Zinni visit, thus potentially neutralizing the efficacy of his current mission.

The visit also appears to have been timed to facilitate the Middle East mission of US Vice President Dick Cheney, who needs a measure of quiet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to be able to talk with Arab leaders about Iraq, as well as to enable the Arab League summit to convene peacefully in Beirut in late March, with Arafat’s participation. How the US administration will relate to Zinni’s mission once these events are behind him is not altogether clear.

One additional aspect of the situation greeting Zinni will only be clarified in the coming days. After the bloodshed of recent weeks, are the Sharon government and the Arafat regime more or less anxious than in previous visits to end the fighting? Can they both “declare victory” and start negotiating a ceasefire? Or do internal political considerations mitigate on both sides against a return to a political process?

In any event, Zinni must begin with an effort to induce Yasir Arafat to abandon violence convincingly–the Tenet work plan contains a long list of very specific demands. Here it would be helpful if Zinni could offer Arafat American political reassurances regarding Israeli acquiescence with eventual Mitchell Commission demands for a settlement freeze and Israeli entry into a renewed territorial peace process. These should be coupled with threats to totally isolate the Palestinian leader internationally if he does not comply with a ceasefire, and promises of ample American economic aid if he does.

Turning to Ariel Sharon, Zinni must persuade him to avoid provocative military acts and to offer reassurances regarding his eventual commitment to a settlement freeze and to a peace process that involves territorial concessions. Zinni can try to induce him to move in these directions by holding out the prospect of a genuine ceasefire by the Palestinians, coupled with US assistance for Israel in getting out of its economic recession, and (Vice President Cheney’s role) ironclad guarantees for Israel’s security in the event of an American attack on Iraq.

Yet under the best of circumstances, Arafat is not likely to move against his own terrorists without adequate political incentives, while Sharon has no intention of offering these incentives, if at all, until Palestinian terrorism has stopped. Herein lies Zinni’s immediate dilemma. In this context the only ray of hope may be Israel’s agreement to the diplomatic or “senior” committee, led by Foreign Minister Peres. Zinni has to encourage Arafat to view this committee’s existence as an added incentive–the thin end of a political wedge–for him to cease Palestinian terrorism.

Sharon is not anxious to allow the committee to deal with political issues of substance. But his current political situation requires that he give Peres a freer hand than in past months. Moreover, he could conceivably be confronted with the threat of official US displeasure. Pressuring Sharon would undoubtedly not be an easy course for Washington, given American domestic constraints. But it could eventually become vital if the US wants to make its case persuasively to the Arab world regarding current and potential sources of terrorism–Iraqi, Palestinian and other.

To sum up, if Zinni is going to have a chance to succeed in bringing about a genuine and stable ceasefire, his brief must address the following strategic reality: Neither Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a genuine strategy for peace. Under the best of circumstances they might somehow be maneuvered reluctantly into a stabilizing reduction of violence. For this to happen, Zinni must exercise pressure on them. And in order to pressure them, he needs an expanded presidential mandate made up of a number of carrots and sticks that touch upon political as well as security issues.

Yet there is little in the current picture to indicate that the Bush administration has decided to abandon its standoffish attitude toward Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and embark upon the kind of deep involvement described here.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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