Q&A: U.S. involvement in the Mideast
With Israel having withdrawn from an area of Gaza it had reoccupied for less than 24 hours, and the re-entry being condemned by the United States, CNN's Jerrold Kessel analyses the effect on their relationship.
Q. Could you describe the disputed order of events behind the Israeli withdrawal?
A. The order of events is unclear on a double level.
First domestically, is the fact that just hours before the troops began withdrawing on Tuesday night you had a brigadier general telling journalists that they might stay weeks or months. Today (Wednesday) the prime minister's office and defence ministry say that it was agreed on Tuesday morning that the troops should leave that day, but for operational reasons should stay until dark. This is a curious glitch meaning there is either something wrong with the ministries' stories or that the command did not make it down to the lower echelons.
Turning to the incident's broader significance: Was the Israeli move the result of pressure from Washington? This is obviously very difficult to gauge, particularly as we have only the Israeli government's timetable. It is emphatic that the decision was not the result of outside pressure. In fact it says that the U.S. was informed that Israel had decided to withdraw before the State Department's comments and it is puzzled why it was thought necessary.
Q. Does U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's condemnation of Israel's "excessive and disproportionate" action signal a change in policy?
A. Such a strong public statement signals that everything in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is not as the Israeli government has been projecting -- which is that the blame is laid fully and totally at the Palestinians' door. The comments are unprecedentedly harsh in the short history of this administration and must signal at the least a creeping dissatisfaction in Washington with (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's handling of the conflict. The implications that they do not see totally eye to eye, and chose to express this publicly, must be worrying for Sharon.
Q. What has been the general perception of the U.S.'s new administration and its role in the conflict?
A. Until now the Palestinians have been disappointed, indeed startled, at the degree to which George W. Bush had been pinning the blame consistently on them and saying they were the ones that needed to take the most effective steps. Palestinians must see this as a first signal that earlier hope following the end of Clinton administration will not be as unfulfilled as was seen to be happening.
Q. What has U.S. involvement in past brought?
A. The U.S. has the ability to avert major blow-ups and is seen as the real party to promote dialogue to curb the violence. The deep involvement of (former U.S. president Bill) Clinton and his staff kept the peace process going one way or another -- although critics would question what this has actually achieved.
Q. What next?
A. The U.S. has been prodding both sides to restart dialogue -- at least on the level of security co-operation. So far, largely because of this pressure, and despite great Israeli and Palestinian reluctance, two such meetings have taken place although nothing of substance was achieved. A third on Monday did not happen amid the recent escalation, and there is a deepening belief on both sides that they don't really have a partner on the other side with whom they could conclude even the most limited agreement. The U.S. has the muscle, but appears to be keeping at arms length from the parties, not willing to adopt more forceful posture.
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