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Can The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Be Solved? - 2002-05-03

The Bush Administration has announced it will participate in an upcoming international conference on the Middle East conflict. In the meantime, negotiations will go forward, "to create two peaceful states side by side," President Bush said.

One analyst says she expects more of the same, and that is not very good. Heidi Shoup, executive director of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine says there is little hope of the United States making much headway toward a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She cites the overwhelming support of Israel in the U.S. Congress with a leading member even advocating the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank.

"This back and forth does not seem to be getting us any closer to peace or security for either people or resolution of the conflict overall. In the meantime, it is putting America in a situation of looking ridiculous all over the world," she said. "The impression is either Sharon is not listening to Bush or it is all kind of a theater, and [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is actually doing what [President] Bush wants him to do."

As evidence, Heidi Shoup notes the United States stood idly by while Israeli forces systematically destroyed the Palestinian Authority and then caved in to Israel's refusal to let the United Nations investigate its attack on the Jenin refugee camp.

"I am more optimistic, " said Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Just back from consultations in Europe, he believes progress is possible.

"If the parties came as close as they did at the Taba talks in January 2001, which all sides acknowledge was very close to what could be accepted, or at least the Labor Party in Israel acknowledges that, and the Palestinians believe that, then I think inevitably these parties can get back to that framework," he said.

Mr. Katzman says this will take time and perhaps leadership changes in both camps.

The Bush administration says it is engaged in multiple levels of conversations on the issue. In what is known as the Quartet, U.S. Secretary of State Powell is meeting with Russian, U.N. and EU leaders. The Saudis are also deeply involved.

Mr. Katzman says there is a definite road map ahead.

"There is going to be a focus on reconstructing the West Bank, providing aid to the Palestinians, maybe resuming some sort of security cooperation to make sure we do not get radical factions sabotaging the progress with another big suicide bombing," he said. "There is a lot of work that is going to go on before that big conference."

Mr. Katzman says members of the U.S. Congress are understandably concerned about the dangers to Israel, which has suffered from violence along with Palestinians.

Heidi Shoup says the U.S. Congress may encourage Prime Minister Sharon's resistance to a settlement, but President Bush enjoys high poll ratings among the American people. Like Presidents before him, he can draw on that support.

"He is in probably in a position to be able to say, 'OK, I am commander in chief here, not the people on Capitol Hill, and I speak for the national interest, and this is what we are going to do.' At some point, one has to think that America's vital interest and America's position in the world have to be judged apart from short-term political considerations by any party," she said.

Both Heidi Shoup and Kenneth Katzman say the Middle East conflict should be carefully distinguished from the war on terror. Different strategies apply, highly complex in each case.