Last week, the U.S.-backed "road map" for Middle East peace was dealt a blow amid a resumption of violence in which more than 50 Israelis and Palestinians were killed. The bloodshed subsided this week as Washington sent an envoy to the region ahead of an expected visit tomorrow by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Washington, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's first major foray into Middle East peacemaking has been something of a baptism of fire. And by all appearances, the situation is unlikely to cool off any time soon.
After his first three-way talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders two weeks ago in Jordan, Bush appeared to have made key progress toward bringing the two sides back to the bargaining table after more than two-and-a-half years of violence.
But events last week appeared to dash those hopes. Tit-for-tat violence again erupted.
A few days after the summit on 8 June, five Israeli soldiers and five Palestinians were killed in a gun battle at an Israeli checkpoint. Three Palestinian militant groups -- Hamas, Fatah, and Islamic Jihad -- claimed joint responsibility for the attack.
After Israel attempted to assassinate a top Hamas official on 10 June, the militant group retaliated by bombing a Jerusalem bus and killing 17 Israelis. Israel then launched helicopter attacks in the Gaza Strip, killing several militants and civilians.
David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat in the region, is vice president of the private Middle East Institute in Washington.
"It's pretty clear that the strategies of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have so far failed to achieve their objectives," Mack said. "They're going to need help from an outside force."
A lull in the violence coincided with the arrival earlier this week of U.S. special envoy John Wolf. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to arrive in Israel tomorrow to follow up Wolf's efforts.
Yet so far, there is no clear way to smooth a major bump on the Mideast road map: Palestinian militant groups.
Israel wants them destroyed, or at least subdued, by new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas before any progress can be reached on the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner said in Tel Aviv yesterday: "The Palestinian Authority is doing absolutely nothing in order to stop this bloodshed. They are talking and talking with everybody and doing absolutely nothing. We demand from the Palestinian Authority that immediate steps be taken to make all terrorism end."
Yet the Palestinian Authority is extremely reluctant, and some say ill-equipped, to take on Hamas and other militant groups in what would likely amount to a civil war. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, this week resumed talks with militant organizations on a cease-fire to allow progress on the road map to go forward.
Although Bush last weekend appeared to endorse the Israeli view that Hamas and other militant groups must be dismantled for the peace process to take off, U.S. policy on the matter may in fact be more nuanced -- at least for now.
Powell, visiting Cambodia, told reporters yesterday he would discuss the possibility of transferring Israeli security control of a part of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority. That deal would, in theory, provide a test case for whether Abbas can actually rein in militants on his territory.
"As we continue down the road map, we'll work very hard with our partners in the region and our partners in the European Union and elsewhere to add to the capacity of the Palestinian Authority so that they can increase their reach in Gaza and ultimately, we hope, to the West Bank communities, as well," Powell said.
For such a deal to work without leading to civil war it would require a truce agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the militants.
Despite continued tough talk from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel signaled yesterday that it might be willing to accept such a truce for up to six weeks, Israeli television reported. But after that time, Israel would expect Abbas to take on the militants, a move he said he will not make.
Still, Israel may be giving him a hand for the time being. Reuters reported yesterday that Israel has agreed to limit its assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders to terrorists known to be planning imminent attacks.
Reuters said the deal was struck at the White House this week. And although it was derided by Hamas as insubstantial, the news -- if confirmed -- could facilitate truce talks between Abbas and the militant groups.
Mack, the former U.S. diplomat, says that with positive steps from Israel, he's hopeful that more than a temporary truce can be reached.
"But it's also going to depend upon the willingness of the Israelis to provide real serious support for Abu Mazen, which they really have not done so far -- serious support in bolstering his political position by making it clear that the policies that he is pursuing in terms of trying to bring an end to the violence can actually pay off in meaningful terms, not simply more rhetoric," Mack said.
Hamas leaders yesterday did not rule out a possible cease-fire, fueling speculation that some kind of deal may be in the works.
But others remain extremely skeptical.
"Why should there be a peace process between Israel and Hamas? Hamas wants to destroy Israel. What's there's to talk about -- the day?"
That's University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter, a Middle East expert and former Pentagon official. He tells RFE/RL that the Palestinian Authority has 15,000 security service officials who, with U.S. military assistance, would have the means to wipe out the militant groups. What's missing, he says, is the political will.
"The only way you're going to have a democratic Palestine is for the radicals to be killed," he said. "The euphemism is to 'uproot the terrorist infrastructure.' That means killing people. You don't kill buildings."
Other analysts, however, say that such an escalation in violence would only make things worse and could weaken the internal credibility of Abbas, whom Washington hopes can succeed as a peaceful successor to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
The road map itself suggests that any truce could be enforced over a transition period by an international monitoring force led by, say, NATO or the United States. Such a period would allow for the political and economic progress needed to form a Palestinian state.