Robin Oakley: Sharon's test for U.S.
CNN political analyst Robin Oakley sees more U.S. involvement over the growing Middle East conflict.
Q: Why did the Israelis occupy areas of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip?
Oakley: In the immediate instance, because young Arabs had been firing mortars from Gaza into Israeli territory and in the direction of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's farm in the Negev Desert.
Q: But surely that was not enough to provoke the first occupation of Palestinian land since the Oslo Accords in 1993?
Oakley: There is a deeper explanation. The hardline Sharon, a former general, won power as a strong man promising to protect the Israeli people from violence. He believes that peace can only be founded on military victory and the occupation was a deliberate show of strength.
Q: Were the Israelis planning permanent occupation?
Oakley: It depends who you talk to. A local Israeli commander originally said the troops might stay for days, weeks or months. Now the Israelis say he spoke above his authority, that it was only a 'security operation' and that the troops were always going to be pulled out rapidly.
Q: So it wasn't the warning from the Americans that the Israeli action was "excessive and disproportionate" that made them pull back?
Oakley: The Israelis say not. Everybody else believes it was. Sharon was testing not just the Palestinians but his allies in Washington. He wanted to see how far the new Bush administration, so far more "hands off " in the Middle East than the Clinton team was, would let him go.
Q: What is Sharon trying to do with his tough military action?
Oakley: He wants to crush the Arab uprising militarily and impose a peace settlement on his terms. In the short term he wants to pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to call off his young Arab radicals from throwing stones and firing mortars.
Q: Is he likely to succeed?
Oakley: No. Arafat can't be seen to do his bidding, resentment against Israel is growing and the show of force may prove counter-productive.
Q: Will the Americans now become more involved?
Oakley: It seems likely. Colin Powell, Secretary of State, says the U.S. is "deeply concerned" at the growing violence and that it could lead to a broader conflict in the region. Most US administrations get sucked into the Middle East peace process whether they want to be or not.
Q: Are we heading for a wider conflict?
Oakley: It seems perfectly possible. Both sides are stepping up tit for tat reprisals. As well as Palestinian attacks Israel has faced rocket attacks by Hezbollah from Lebanon and has retaliated by bombing a Syrian radar post in Lebanon. A conflict spreading to Syria and Lebanon is quite possible.
Q: Will Sharon's hardline approach maintain his support in Israel?
Oakley: It is doing so for the moment but the Israeli people have turned against Likud hardliners in the past. People want protection but they would soon weary of having their young men tied down for years suffering terrorist attacks while they occupied Arab lands.
Q: What happens next?
Oakley: Probably more sporadic violence between Palestinians and Israelis coupled with pressure from the U.S. and the European Union for Sharon to keep his response within bounds. It is difficult to see what incentive there is for Palestinians to end the current uprising.
Q: What about the hopes of a final settlement and long term peace.?
Oakley: Probably as far away as ever. Sharon only seems interested in another interim deal. The U.S. and the EU will call for more political dialogue but probably accept that their role for the moment is restricted to damage limitation.
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