by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
beloved New York Yankee catcher and phrase-maker Yogi Berra once said, it seems like "deja vu all over again."
Fourteen months ago, President George W. Bush demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas, withdraw from cities Israeli forces had re-occupied, and refrain from further unilateral actions that would inflame the conflict.
"Enough is enough," snapped the U.S. president, who had conquered Afghanistan four months before.
Sharon, of course, treated Bush's demands in much the same way as he would the yapping of a chihuahua, politely explaining that protecting Israeli citizens from suicide bombs was his first responsibility -- and otherwise ignoring him.
Two weeks later, the president was praising Sharon as a "man of peace", while stepping up his rhetoric against Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and then ostracising him altogether just two months later.
One might have thought -- and many people, including Arabs and Israelis, did -- that 14 months and a decisive U.S. military victory in Iraq later, Bush's demands for Israeli cooperation in a new, U.S.-backed initiative to calm tensions, bolster the authority of a new, more-moderate Palestinian leader -- Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- and impart some hope for an eventual peace agreement might be received by Sharon with somewhat more respect.
But it now seems that Bush has once again gotten the chihuahua treatment, and the big question is whether he will do something about it this time.
The president thought he had an understanding with Sharon coming out of last week's Aqaba Summit: the Israelis would refrain from taking any unilateral action, especially selective assassinations, that could undermine Abbas' fragile authority and his efforts to persuade militant Palestinian factions, especially Hamas, to halt attacks on Israelis.
But less than 24 hours after a coordinated attack last Sunday by several militant groups, including Hamas, on a Gaza checkpoint that left four Israeli soldiers dead, Israeli helicopter gunships launched two attacks intended to assassinate prominent Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Those attacks, which killed five Palestinians and wounded more than 60 others, including Rantisi, drew an uncharacteristically strong response from Bush, reminiscent of his initial demands on Sharon 14 months ago.
As top aides burned up the telephone wires to Jerusalem with protests, Bush told reporters during a photo-op with visiting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Tuesday: "I am troubled by the recent Israeli helicopter gunship attacks," adding that he was "concerned" that they "will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist attacks."
He was right, of course. As he and most observers predicted, Hamas struck back. On Wednesday, a lone suicide bomber blew up a Jerusalem bus, killing 16 people and wounding dozens more. Since then, Israel has mounted several more helicopter attacks against selected targets, including a Hamas military leader who was killed with his wife, small daughter, and two bystanders Thursday when rockets struck the car in which he was riding.
To close observers of the past two and a half years of Sharon's rule, the pattern was all too familiar. As pointed out in a column by Jackson Diehl entitled "Diplomacy by Assassination" in Friday's 'Washington Post', much the same thing happened in June 2001 and again in December 2001.
In each case, several weeks of relative calm were supposed to lead to a cease-fire that would in turn permit a resumption of peace talks. But just as that cease-fire appeared within reach, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) mounted a spectacular assassination against a Hamas political leader that was invariably followed up by a Palestinian suicide bombing, crushing all hopes for a cease-fire and plunging the two sides into a new cycle of violence.
To Diehl and many others, the attack on Rantisi appeared to have been premeditated and aimed as much at hopes for the fledgling U.S.-led "road map", as it was at Rantisi himself.
"Had it chosen to, Israel could have targeted him at any time in the last year, when no peace process was underway," according to Diehl. "So why did the helicopters strike six days after the Aqaba summit? The most logical explanation is that the violent and entirely predictable consequences were exactly what Israel's prime minister wanted."
Bush's unusual attack on Israel on Tuesday suggested that he agreed with that analysis. And the fact that his remarks coincided with the publication in the Israeli newspaper 'Ha'aretz' of a detailed account of the Aqaba meeting that depicted the U.S. leader as siding with Abbas on key issues, and even interrupting and sharply rejecting protests by Sharon, bolstered the notion that the conqueror of Baghdad had indeed stiffened his spine over the past 14 months and was prepared to take on Sharon and his fellow generals.
But Bush's criticism of Israel sparked a flurry of angry protests from pro-Likud and Christian Right groups and their congressional and media allies, particularly after Wednesday's suicide bombing.
Identifying Washington's war on terrorism with threat posed against Israel, many critics argued that it was hypocrisy for Bush to criticize Sharon for the assassination attempts.
To argue that Rantisi, for example, should be exempt from attack because of his status as a political leader "would be akin to saying that Osama bin Laden was not a terrorist because he did not actually fly the planes", argued Max Abrahms of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that tends to support the Israeli government.
On Thursday, the White House shifted direction. "The issue is not Israel," said spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The issue is terrorists who are killing in an attempt to stop a hopeful process from moving forward." On Friday, Powell, who travels to the region next week, called for restraint by both parties, a familiar refrain from 14 months ago. And, like 14 months ago, Bush remained silent, even as Israel carried out new helicopter attacks.
But all agree that the stakes are much higher now, if only because Washington's intervention in Iraq and its ambition to transform the entire Middle East will make it extremely difficult for Bush to walk away.
"He could lose enormous credibility in the eyes of the Arab world, Europe, and peace activists in the U.S. if he can't get Sharon to deliver on the deal," says Lewis Roth, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.
"It was risky for them to get into this in terms of domestic politics," according to James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute, "but it's even riskier on the international and regional level for them to walk away."
"It's a moment of truth for the Road Map; "I don't think you can resuscitate it if it drowns in a pool of blood at this point," he added.
"Bush is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," said Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East specialist at the University of Chicago. "If he backs down and does nothing, he looks like a wimp. If he escalates against Sharon, then he's got a king-sized battle on Capitol Hill and (with) the Israel lobby."
June 14, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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