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US, Palestinian Relations Deteriorate - 2002-01-31

Israeli-Palestinian relations have deteriorated into a relentless cycle of violence since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising 16 months ago. Now U.S. relations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have deteriorated after Israel's interception earlier this month of a boatload of Iranian weapons allegedly bound for the Palestinian Authority.

Mideast experts say Yasser Arafat's assertion he knew nothing about the cargo of illegal weapons has undermined his credibility among U.S. decision-makers. The introduction of hi-tech weaponry would sabotage peace efforts that rely on the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

So U.S. officials are putting more pressure on Mr. Arafat to make good on his promise to crack down on extremist violence, especially after the latest wave of suicide attacks inside Israel.

Israel has long complained that Mr. Arafat is not doing enough to curb the violence and has sharply restricted his movements until he hands over suspects in last year's murder of an Israeli government official.

U.S. officials now openly express sympathy for the Israeli actions. That attitude angers the Palestinian public and fuels hostility toward Washington.

Middle East watchers like Omar Kader, says when Washington sides with Israel, it undercuts the moderate Palestinian voice and strengthens the extremists who are bent on destroying the peace process. Mr. Kader is an Arab-American contractor for U.S. projects in the region who has served as executive director of the United Palestinian Appeal. "All I can say is U.S. foreign policy right now is exacerbating the situation. It is making Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Islamic organizations more powerful than Arafat," Mr. Kader said.

Israeli writer David Makovsky sees Washington's hands-off approach as a reaction to the violence and the unwillingness of Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to talk peace. "Over the last year, the Bush administration witnessing this outburst of violence in the Middle East has dedicated itself more to the idea of crisis stabilization than conflict resolution, believing, I think correctly so, that times were not ripe right now for conflict resolution given the loss of trust," Mr. Makovsky said.

Mr. Kader says Washington has not helped the situation by remaining silent when Israel carries out targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist suspects or bombs and bulldozes the Palestinian infrastructure.

Still, he acknowledges that Yasser Arafat's failure to crack down on the extremists shows he has not yet realized the powerful impact of the September 11th terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy. "Arafat and the Palestinians have missed the point of 9/11 on the world and the minds of Americans. Palestinians haven't got a clue of what 9/11 meant to America. We're no longer tolerant of tactical use of violence. We're no longer tolerant of those who say yes but, you don't understand, but," Mr. Makovsky said.

Israeli writer David Makovsky describes the impact of the current cycle of violence on the peace process as a train wreck in slow motion.

Mr. Makovsky argues the U.S. administration has little to work with in terms of peace negotiations until the violence subsides. "The United States for now is just sitting back and letting things happen on the ground hoping that Arafat will get the message. It might be he won't and that is a risk but every other option is even less attractive," Mr. Makovsky said.

Each side blames the other. Israelis have lost confidence in Mr. Arafat's willingness to conclude a peace deal and now believe little progress will be made until the Palestinian leader hands over the reins of power. Palestinians say Ariel Sharon is the obstacle to peace and maintain no progress can be made until Israelis vote him out of office.

Even Middle East analysts who urge more active U.S. efforts in reviving the peace talks now express little hope until Israeli and the Palestinian leaders end their confrontation and takes steps toward renewing their cooperation.