The Bush administration, reeling from a week of explosive developments on the troubled Israeli-Palestinian front, is reexamining even its limited efforts to win a cease-fire in the 16-month-old intifada.
That reassessment — that resulted in this week’s indefinite postponement of a new Mideast mission by U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni — comes as officials here and in Jerusalem digest disturbing revelations about Yasser Arafat’s involvement in a recent arms smuggling scheme and his deepening involvement with Iran.
But few observers expect Washington to pull the plug on relations with Arafat, largely because they see no alternative to the Palestinian leader.
"There should be a major reassessment," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). "The hesitation comes from the fact that no one in the government really seems to know what would happen if that reassessment led to a break with the P.A."
Zinni was expected to return to the region late this week. His last mission was effectively scuttled by the discovery of the massive Palestinian arms smuggling operation by Israel two weeks ago.
But on Monday, State Department officials indicated that a date had not been set for his return, signaling that even the limited goal of pressing for a reduction in the level of violence was being put on hold in the wake of the arms seizure controversy and the deteriorating situation on the ground. That situation included a flurry of new violence, and the promise of more to come.
On Tuesday, a major Fatah militia leader died in an explosion that Palestinian leaders termed an Israeli "assassination," but that Israeli officials called a "work accident."
The killing touched off a new rampage by Palestinian gunmen. Victims included Avi Boaz, 71, an Israeli civilian with dual U.S. citizenship, who was abducted and murdered; and Yoela Chen, 47, an Israeli woman, who was killed near Jerusalem. Israel Radio also reported that rockets capable of hitting many Israeli cities and towns had already been smuggled into Palestinian Authority-held territory.
This week, Israeli officials were spinning a story of a growing alliance between Tehran and the Palestinian Authority that began almost a year ago.
"While Washington is talking about signs of moderation in Tehran, the leaders there may sense that they can push the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the edge into all-out war," said an official with a major Jewish organization. "And if that happens, they want to be part of it."
News of Iran’s involvement comes at a time when pressure is mounting in Washington for an easing of sanctions on the Tehran regime; Iran’s apparent decision to stir the Israeli-Palestinian pot with tons of illegal weapons could bring that effort to a screeching halt.
"Assuming the facts are as reported and that Iran is now directly involved in supplying the P.A., it would be a major escalation," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University and a top Iran expert. "It would have serious repercussions for U.S.-Iran relations."
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the arms smuggling incident and Iran’s role in it are "very troubling" and could lead to new U.S.-Israel friction as the allies bring very different perspectives to bear on dangerous new developments in the region.
"Israel views this ship incident as a seminal event which demonstrates Arafat’s duplicity beyond any shadow of a doubt; the Bush administration believes that anything it says publicly about it will take them down a road they don’t want to go on — a leap into the unknown of the post-Arafat era," he said
Israel expects a sharp change in U.S. policy to "marginalize and delegitimize" Arafat because the Palestinian leader was clearly preparing for more terror and possibly all-out war, Makovsky said.
But Washington, which believes that what follows Ararat will likely be worse, wants desperately to avoid judgments that would leave them no option but to cut relations with Arafat.
"Washington just wants to see this as a blip on the screen, Makovsky said. "I don’t see it that way. It’s a violation of all the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and it undermines the very premise of peacemaking."
Washington also has different interests in dealing with the Tehran connection.
If Iraq is the next target in the U.S. war against terrorism, Makovsky said, U.S. officials "want the Israeli-Palestinian situation to be as quiet as possible — and they don’t want more conflict with Iran. So this incident doesn’t fit into America’s view of its interests.