The Bush administration's foreign policy strategists huddled at the White House on Monday, examining proposals for U.S. action to curb violence in the Middle East despite growing evidence that the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can do little to stop suicide bombers.
Even though both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made tenuous cease-fire declarations, a fierce gun battle raged Monday in the Gaza Strip, undercutting U.S. diplomacy before it could get started.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, his deputy Richard L. Armitage, White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials reviewed a range of possible steps without settling on anything.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said one plan under consideration would involve sending CIA Director George J. Tenet to mediate between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Tenet and other CIA officials played a similar role after a 1998 Israeli-Palestinian summit, hammering out agreements that produced more than a year of cooperation.
But officials said security talks, even if they proved successful, would not be enough to resolve the current crisis.
In the wake of a suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis at a seaside disco in Tel Aviv on Friday night, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians know that something is needed to stop the spiral of violence.
But there is no consensus on what should be done, and all three parties face severe political and practical constraints.
In response to the Tel Aviv terrorist attack, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called for a cease-fire, moving closer than he has at any point in the last eight months of violence to meeting demands for an unconditional order for Palestinians to stop fighting. In a surprise development, Hamas, the militant Islamic organization blamed for a series of suicide attacks, said it would join the cease-fire. Israel declared a unilateral truce last month.
Nevertheless, the gun battle Monday between Israeli and Palestinian forces in Gaza dramatized the uncertain hold of the proclamations.
From the U.S. standpoint, most of the available diplomatic measures are known and were tried during the last year of the Clinton administration. Some helped, but none resolved the conflict.
President Bush is reluctant to appear to be following the former president's policy, especially because Clinton was unable to broker an agreement. Powell is known to believe that Clinton's frenetic peace-brokering--including two full-blown U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summits in the final six months of his term--reduced the impact of U.S. involvement.
"We want to make sure that our intervention is timely and useful, not just visible," said a senior State Department official who declined to be identified by name.
Powell has designated William Burns, soon to take office as assistant secretary of State for the Near East, as the administration's point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Burns had been scheduled to return to Washington to take his oath of office, but he now will remain in the region for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafat and other officials.
Richard Murphy, the State Department's top Middle East official during the Reagan administration, said Powell's deliberate pace may pay off. But he also said it would be a mistake to move too slowly.
"Timing is everything," said Murphy, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "If you wait too long, you really have a dangerous situation."
In Israel, Sharon has come under increasing pressure to retaliate for Friday night's suicide bombing.
Despite Israel's overwhelming military prowess, Sharon has limited reach. He could revive a controversial policy of targeting Palestinian leaders implicated in terrorist attacks. But that would surely damage Israel's relations with the United States and European countries. And using Israel's conventional military might--tanks, F-16 warplanes and similar weapons--is not particularly effective against suicide bombers.
Middle East experts say last month's F-16 attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip apparently helped Hamas to recruit additional suicide bombers by deepening the resentment of many Palestinians who believe they have no other way to combat Israel.
Moreover, conventional military attacks on territory under Palestinian control would weaken Arafat's hold on power. Some Israelis may welcome that result, but U.S. experts say it would be extremely shortsighted.
"All it does is erode the central authority of Arafat, which means it diminishes his ability to restrain Hamas," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland expert on Middle East politics. "It would mean more fragmentation in the Palestinian area, which is the perfect environment for guerrilla attacks."
If Hamas is serious about joining in a cease-fire, it might change the dynamic of the crisis. But Middle East experts say there are other potential suicide bombers who are not affiliated with either Hamas or Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
Regional specialists say one reason Arafat has been reluctant to order an unconditional cease-fire is that he is not certain he would be obeyed. These experts say Palestinian public opinion is sharply opposed to any truce that does not include Israeli concessions such as a freeze on settlement activity.
"I personally believe that if Arafat were to undertake a major assault on Hamas and the militants at a time when he is not delivering anything to the Palestinians, it probably would work against him in his rivalry with Hamas," Telhami said. "He has to manage this in a way that gives Hamas some incentive to cooperate."