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U.S. Struggles to Keep Plan Intact

The chief focus is to set ground rules for when Israel can launch attacks against militants.

June 12, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With broken bodies and smoking rubble mounting, President Bush's Mideast peace initiative -- launched with such fanfare a week ago -- has turned into a struggle just to figure out a way to prevent more killings.

The tightening spiral of violence has spurred some outside the administration to call for drastic action, including the possible deployment of foreign troops to separate the sides. But on Wednesday, the White House was concentrating on nailing down ground rules on what constitutes "restraint" by Israel.

Even on a day that left 16 people dead in a Palestinian suicide attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was still a focus of the U.S. efforts, in large part because he is more able to contain the violence than Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, only in office six weeks, U.S. officials say. Since last week's summit in Aqaba, Jordan, 46 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed.

Washington scrambled to work out a new understanding with Israel on what would justify Israeli military action, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

In Aqaba, the administration thought it had an agreement with Sharon to show restraint unless Israel was faced with an immediate, known terrorist threat, such as a bomb-laden extremist setting out for an attack, the sources said.

But the language was sufficiently vague, according to Israeli and U.S. officials, that each side interpreted it differently -- producing a confrontation and a dispute over Israel's assassination attempt on a leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The agreement did not, for example, cover political figures, such as Abdulaziz Rantisi, the Hamas militant targeted Tuesday, even though the administration believes he is a dangerous senior leader of a terrorist group, U.S. officials added.

The dispute underscores what may prove to be a deep flaw in Bush's two Middle East summits last week: In an attempt to win agreement, the United States brokered a series of understandings with the Israelis and Palestinians that were so vague that they almost immediately collapsed, say analysts and former envoys.

"The expectations on the two sides were very different about what the other would be doing. Each side is now offering its own interpretation of what was meant," said Dennis B. Ross, former U.S. special envoy for the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, who is now in Israel and has talked with both parties.

"When they don't have the same interpretations, then there's bound to be a problem," Ross said. "At this point, the one thing the United States really has to do is broker specific understandings about what should happen on the ground."

The dispute over the interpretations of the Aqaba agreement reflects differences in policy and legally acceptable tactics, as the United States has condemned so-called "targeted killings."

They're also still sorting their differences over Rantisi. Israel has turned over intelligence it claims will prove his involvement in recent Hamas terrorist incidents -- and thus justify the attack, according to Israeli and U.S. sources. The Israeli strike followed weekend attacks by Hamas and two other Palestinian groups that killed five Israeli soldiers.

But the gap in what defines an imminent threat still appears to be wide. Apparently not deterred by Bush's pointed rebuke Tuesday, Sharon pledged Wednesday that Israel would "continue to pursue until the end the terrorists and those that send them."

On Wednesday, the Bush administration faced a growing cacophony of voices -- from Congress, former U.S. envoys, think tanks and interest groups -- calling for bolder ideas to quell the violence before it snuffs out chances of implementing the peace "road map."

One proposal, from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), calls for deployment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops. Another, from Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, suggests that the Palestinian Authority become a trusteeship. Others call for Americans to provide protection for Israel while giving the new Palestinian government time to build its own new security.

"We have been working at Mideast peace for well over 40 years. We've had some success with conventional approaches, but we've run into a wall over the past three years," said Kenneth M. Pollack, former National Security Council staffer on the Mideast in the Clinton and current Bush administrations.

"We're going to need to start looking at some unorthodox solutions, several of which focus on the introduction of foreign military forces into the occupied territories or some type of trusteeship for a new Palestinian state. All of these ideas center on the notion that separating Israelis and Palestinians physically will give breathing room to the new Palestinian administration trying to fight terrorists and protection to Israel," he added.

For now, however, the administration is mixing presidential admonitions with telephone diplomacy to drive home the message of restraint to both sides.

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