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Mideast Diplomacy Proved Frustrating for Bush Administration - 2001-12-23


It was a frustrating year in the Middle East for the Bush administration, which was rebuffed in repeated efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. But 2001 was at least ending on a more optimistic note, with a decline in violence.

Bush administration policy makers left little doubt, when they took office in January that they put most of the blame on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the failure of peace efforts by Bill Clinton, whose drive for an overall Israeli-Palestinian peace accord continued into his last days in office.

In one of its early acts, the new administration stepped back from the intensive diplomacy of its predecessor by abolishing the post of Middle East special envoy, held in the Clinton years by Dennis Ross.

And it put a diplomatic quarantine on Mr. Arafat, pointedly hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House in March while making clear Mr. Arafat would not see a similar invitation until there was an end to anti-Israeli violence.

However, the cycle of violence which erupted in September of 2000, continued to rage, with a suicide bombing at an Israeli shopping center in May drawing an expression of frustration from President Bush. "It is essential that the leaders in the Middle East speak out clearly against violence. We must break the cycle of violence in order to begin meaningful discussions about any kind of political settlement," he said. "My administration will continue to work with the parties involved reminding folks that violence will not lead to peace, obviously. Violence will make it so difficult for there to be any political settlement. I'm concerned anytime anybody loses life. I'm especially concerned about suicide bombers that have disregard for themselves and obviously, for innocent folks."

Despite his aversion to special mediators, Mr. Bush dispatched CIA director George Tenet to the region in May to try to end the violence, which at the time had already claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Palestinians.

After intensive shuttling between the sides, the CIA chief, who had been active in former President Clinton's peace efforts, produced what U.S. officials called a detailed "work plan" for a cease-fire.

It included a call for a resumption of regular U.S.-led meetings of top Israeli and Palestinian security officials, the arrest of known terror suspects by the Palestinian Authority, and an end to Israeli military incursions into Palestinian areas and attacks on the Authority's police posts and other facilities.

Almost concurrently, an international panel led by former U.S. Senate Majority leader George Mitchell was completing a more detailed set of peace proposals under a mandate from the Sharm El-Sheikh emergency summit convened by Mr. Clinton in October of 2000.

Like the Tenet "work plan," the Mitchell report called for an immediate halt to violence and a renewal of security contacts. But it went further, with proposals for a cooling off period, confidence-building measures including a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in West Bank and Gaza and what was termed a "100 percent effort" by the Palestinian authority against terror groups operating from areas under its control.

At a Washington news conference in June, Mr. Mitchell warned that the regional violence, which had been raging by that time for nine months, threatened to destroy all hope for a final-status peace agreement that had only months before appeared within reach. "Fear, hate, anger and frustration have risen on both sides," he said. "The greatest danger of all is that the culture of peace, nurtured over the previous decade, is being shattered. In its place, there is a growing sense of futility and despair and a growing resort to violence. Political leaders on both sides must act and speak decisively to reverse these dangerous trends. They must rekindle the desire and the drive for peace."

The Bush administration adopted the Mitchell plan as its blueprint for leading the parties back to the negotiating table, but it was unable to make any headway toward its realization amid continued violence including a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Jerusalem pizza parlor in August that killed 14 people and Israeli counter-measures including the so-called "targeted killing" of Palestinian militants.

As the cycle of violence dragged on through the autumn months, the administration despite its preoccupation with the September 11 U.S. terror attacks, decided to again adopt a more active role in regional diplomacy.

In a major policy speech in Louisville, Kentucky, in mid-November, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was sending two high-level envoys to the area, while outlining a vision for peace that included a "viable" Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. "The Palestinian leadership must end violence, stop incitement and prepare their people for the hard compromises ahead. All in the Arab world must make unmistakably clear, through their own actions, their acceptance of Israel and their commitment to a negotiated settlement," he said. "Israel must be willing to end its occupation consistent with the principles embodied in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and accept a viable Palestinian state in which Palestinians can determine their own future, on their own land and live in dignity and security."

Mr. Powell sent Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and retired U.S. Marine General Anthony Zinni to the area, Mr. Zinni tasked with the job of "pushing and prodding" Israel and the Palestinians into implementing the cease-fire deal they had nominally accepted when CIA director Tenet was in the area six months before.

But the Zinni mission was abandoned in mid-December after three weeks of work in the face of a series of suicide attacks and Israeli military incursions into Palestinian areas, coupled with what Israeli Prime Minister Sharon said would be the end of all contact with Mr. Arafat.

But even as the situation appeared to reach a new low point, violence subsided amid unprecedented Mideast policy coordination between the United States and European community, including joint pressure on Mr. Arafat to rein in the extremists.

Despite Mr. Sharon's professed boycott, Israeli and Palestinian security talks resumed and the Palestinian Authority police were raiding offices and arresting leaders of militant factions producing at year's end at least some optimism among administration officials of a more peaceful 2002 in the Middle East.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001

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