There have been far too many crises to count in the Middle East, so it is impossible to know if the latest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, now in its eighth month with more than 500 dead, is crisis number 10 or 110.
The end of this round in the fighting, when it comes, will arrive with a bit of a new diplomatic twist in the form of a report from the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, also known as the Mitchell Commission* after its chairman, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
The 32-page report calls on both parties to end the violence, engage in confidence-building measures (that's diplo-speak for doing things that show the other side it should have some level of trust in your new proposals, notwithstanding the fact you've been taking provocative actions for months) and ultimately resume peace negotiations.
Israelis and Palestinians have endorsed the report in broad terms though both have reservations about specific recommendations. Palestinian leaders are advised to crack down and stop terrorism, and the report recommends that Israel put a freeze on all settlement activity, a move it has so far refused to take.
Add to this report a recent plan put forward by Egypt and Jordan and you have something relatively new in Middle East peacemaking: more of an international flavor than simply the traditional U.S.-only effort to guide the parties toward peace.
The Bush administration, in office for only four months, has seen its Middle East policy described as anything "non-Clinton." Translation: hands off, step back, let the parties resolve their differences and, by all means, no special envoy to monitor the problem. Thus the Office of Special Middle East Coordinator at the State Department was abolished by Secretary of State Powell.
Even if the administration were inclined to act more boldly, fear of failure this early in their four-year term is a powerful disincentive. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis says if the administration made a bigger effort and failed it would show the rest of the world that "these guys aren't so tough."
As the level of violence escalates, Powell is under increasing pressure, especially from Capitol Hill, to name a special envoy.
This week, in response to the Mitchell Commission's report, he edged closer to doing just that.
Powell named Ambassador William Burns, who has been nominated to be Assistant Secretary for the Near East, as "special assistant" to the president and himself. He's sending Burns to the region to work with other U.S. diplomats there and report back to Washington. Then, Powell will decide if he should become more deeply involved.
So far away from a peace agreement has the downward spiral of attack and counter-attack taken Israelis and Palestinians that no one is talking in those terms anymore.
The landscape has changed almost everywher. There's a new team in Washington and in Jerusalem. The new Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has said he has no interest in a peace agreement now, only in another interim agreement to solve a few of the outstanding issues. No grand deals are on the table as they were last year at Camp David.
As for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, one State Department official, describing the difficulty of getting him to make a firm decision, said "dealing with him is like squeezing mush."
Most analysts in Washington have concluded Arafat is incapable of cutting a final peace deal with Israel, either because he lacks the leadership or because he cannot cross the political and psychological barriers involved in making concessions necessary for a peace deal.
All of this has left Washington with few options. Powell, taking note of the Mitchell Commission's findings, called for "an unconditional cessation of violence" by the two sides. It's an easy call to make from Washington and one of the few things to do if you are reluctant to wade deeper into the murky waters of Middle East peacemaking.
*Other members of the commission include: Suleyman Demerel, former president of Turkey; Thorbjoern Jagland, foreign minister of Norway; Warren Rudman, former U.S. senator; and Javier Solana of the European Union.
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