Middle East Bloodshed: The U.S. Role

As the violence escalates in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, the pressure for intervention by the United States or some other force increases as well. I listen mostly to NPR while driving, but the experts they have on repeat a drumbeat similar to what one gets on the cable and network news. Greta Van Susteren's segment teaser was "Is President Bush doing everything he can to stop the bloodshed?"

The general assumption is that the Israelis and Palestinians simply can't solve this problem themselves. Sooner or later the U.S. or the UN or somebody will have to impose a cease-fire. It's just a matter of having the boldness, the courage, the patience, the perseverance to do it.

One of the few exceptions is Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute, to whom I talked last week. He suggested that after some 30 years of mediation and efforts to impose settlement from outside, those who suggest that it is time for the United States to intervene should face a strong burden of proof before they can be taken seriously. We have had intervention after intervention, peace plan after peace plan, and still the violence escalates. What evidence is there that any of those who advise a "robust" U.S. role have a plan that will bring peace this time?

Have Americans forgotten so quickly that the current 18-month Intifada had its genesis, at least to some extent, in over-exuberant U.S. efforts? In his haste to build a "legacy," former President Clinton tried to force an agreement between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. When the talks fell apart – as anybody could have predicted at the time and as I and many others did – disappointment and disillusionment reigned and the stage was set for a new round of mutual violence.


It makes at least as much sense and probably more to suggest that the continuing conviction that the United States will eventually play an increasingly intense and involved role, as former Democratic Sen. Mitchell (along with many others) predicted on "Nightline" Monday night, is as much a deterrent to peace as a goad toward settlement.

If both sides believe that the United States (or the United Nations with strong pushes or at least the tacit approval of the United States) will eventually have to step in, then neither side has much of an incentive to take the idea of negotiating very seriously. Indeed, insofar as they are reasonably sure there will be intervention in the near future, each side has something of an incentive to move as aggressively as possible so as to gain as much as possible – in territory, corpses of enemies, strategic position, destruction of the infrastructure and/or morale of the other side – before the intervention occurs. Take this thinking a little further. It is just possible that the United States has been a major contributor – almost certainly unintentionally and not in a straight cause-and-effect fashion, of course – to the current round of violence. Here's how that might be possible.

Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to assess support for a possible attack on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq brought demands for more concerted US efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. So the United States sent retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni on one more mediation mission. Not surprisingly, Palestinian radicals stepped up terror attacks on his arrival. This has happened every time Zinni has gone to the Middle East. It was predictable. The violence has ratcheted up more than on previous occasions this time, but at least some suicide attacks were virtually guaranteed.

This is not to say that Israeli-Palestinian relations would have been sweetness and light given benign neglect from the United States. Suicide bombings and Israeli military action had been fairly common before the Zinni visit. But it is at least possible that some of the additional killings in the last few weeks stem from increasing U.S. involvement, which stems from the desire of the United States to attack Saddam Hussein. Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that violence and the desire for violence always beget more violence, sometimes in unanticipated ways. But the desire to do violence to Saddam is not completely unrelated to the increased violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict either.


What we have seen since Gen. Zinni arrived in the Middle East is almost certainly more than most observers bargained for, of course. On Monday, as Israeli troops expanded their activities in Palestinian territory in the West Bank, while keeping Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat penned in his headquarters compound in Ramallah, a Palestinian bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint near an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, injuring three Israelis, one critically.

It was the sixth suicide bombing in six days. Palestinian gunmen killed some 11 other Palestinians suspected of aiding Israel. The morgue at Ramallah is overcrowded, with at least 25 Palestinians killed and awaiting processing over the last day or so. At least one Israeli soldier was killed, as were several Palestinians in Israeli-Palestinian clashes.

The incident that seems to have ratcheted up the violence this time, of course, was the Passover suicide bombing in the seaside city of Netanya. That gave the Sharon government a reason (or a pretext) to commence military incursions into the West Bank after pulling back from military activity for a few days upon Gen. Zinni's arrival March 14.


Perhaps the saddest aspect of the ongoing conflict is that outsiders with good intentions seem unable to bring it to a halt; indeed, outside efforts may well have contributed to the current round of terror and retribution. Even more tragic is the fact that those who seek to end or ameliorate the bloodshed are effectively held hostage, at least for the short run, to individuals willing to commit suicide and kill others in the process.

Warring perceptions make anything resembling a settlement seem remote just now. A Sunday New York Times article noted that the Israelis seem to want a cease-fire as a precondition to talks on a more permanent settlement including Palestinian statehood, while the Palestinians want movement toward a political settlement. They believe that if the Israelis get a cease-fire they will stall on political talks.

The other Arab countries that met in Beirut have an interest in quieting the Palestinian front, but it is difficult to see what they can do. It is difficult to imagine them taking military action, and or using oil as an effective weapon. But some face restiveness and instability if they don't appear to be supporting the Palestinians.

The approaches of the outsiders who might actually want peace seem especially pathetic just now. President Bush says Mr. Arafat must do more to stop the violence, but it is unclear whether he can do so. The United Nations has condemned the Israeli incursions, but it has no power to stop them. The Arab summit's adoption of a Saudi peace plan (which might or might not have been serious) last week was undermined by the Passover massacre and subsequent bombings.


One may always be allowed to hope that at some point the residents of the Middle East will have suffered enough terror, enough bloodshed, enough horror that they will sit down and talk about ending the violence. But that time has obviously not yet come. One hates to think of bloodshed as a necessary prelude to serious negotiations, but in this sad old world – and especially in the Middle East – it is difficult to imagine the imposition of peace by an outside force at this time or any time in the near future.

On "Nightline" Sen. Mitchell, already the author of yet another failed Middle Eastern peace plan, invoked his experience in Northern Ireland. He made the point that even after the path of small confidence-building measures had been mapped out, it still took months of negotiations, with both sides fully apprised of what all the steps were likely to be, to get an agreement. But it was important to have a plan or a path from which to operate.

What he failed to mention was that war-weariness had set in long before, in Northern Ireland, and neither side had anything resembling a realistic expectation that it would gain much more in terms of territory or power (other than deaths on the other side counterbalanced by inevitable deaths on one's own side) through further violence. There is little evidence that kind of resignation is prevalent in the Middle East.

I have no way of knowing what is in Yasser Arafat's mind, but certainly some Palestinian militants still believe that the destruction of Israel as an entity is possible. And while I suspect that Ariel Sharon himself has retreated from the idea of a permanent Jewish presence on the West Bank, some elements of the Israeli polity still see that as an achievable goal. Sen. Mitchell also failed to note that the agreement he worked so hard to forge in Northern Ireland has looked especially shaky lately and may well have fallen apart.


There were signs before last week that Ariel Sharon's government in Israel was losing popularity as military action failed to yield security. Indeed, Yossi Beilin, the justice minister in Ehud Barak's government, wrote an article saying that "the Israeli war against the terrorist infrastructure will give birth to more terrorists, because the terrorist infrastructure lies within people's hearts."

The suicide bombings seem to have buttressed support for military action among Israelis, but will it last if suicide bombings continue? If it comes to seem apparent to many Israelis that military action will not wipe out the infrastructure of terror will opposition to Sharon grow again?

It is important to remember that so far such opposition has not developed. If either the Israelis or the Palestinians were close to the point of war-weariness, we would expect to see much stronger and more effective opposition to the respective leaders – and from relative doves rather than from critics who say Sharon and Arafat haven't been tough or unremitting enough.

It is sad to consider the likelihood that while most Israelis or Palestinians are probably not pleased with the current level of conflict and killing they are willing to put up with it, at least for now. But if they weren't, both leaders would be facing much more effective political opposition.


One wonders, what authority, if any, does Yasser Arafat have now? Could he stop the bombings if he wanted to? By isolating him in his compound have the Israelis, in effect, relieved him of responsibility? Unfortunately, the situation is complex, volatile and unstable. A mistake or accident could trigger a wider conflict nobody but radicals or those motivated by hatred desires. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon apparently believes (or hopes) that the current military mission will uproot or neutralize the terrorist network, create a buffer zone and make it virtually impossible for suicide bombers to operate. Well, maybe it will for a while, although success is by no means assured and it is not a solution for the long run. Any sensible person must pray for peace, but short of a miracle it is difficult to see its shape.

All this complexity and uncertainty, I submit, far from being an argument for increased U.S. Involvement, is precisely an argument against it. The United States has not been able to achieve peace in some 30 years of trying, and the evidence that the Bush team is more sophisticated and skilled than all its predecessors is less than scant. It might seem cruel to suggest that with the decline of the Soviet Union the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less geopolitically significant than once it was. But it is true.

Core United States interests are no longer at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if they were it's still unlikely we could fix it. The only reason for intensified involvement is not anything resembling a realistic hope that the U.S. has discovered the key to peace, but a desire to make war on Iraq. Perhaps the unexpectedly complex and violent fallout of that desire – and the Israeli-Palestinian complication are only the tip of the iceberg – will lead U.S. leaders (or at least some citizens) to reconsider the necessity of taking out Saddam with a military campaign.

One doubts it, however. A great deal more blood will probably have to be shed before the empire's desire to make permanent war is satiated.

Alan Bock

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