Set A Deadline

Israeli President Moshe Katsav met with President Bush and suggested he set a deadline for the Palestinians to end the violence. Bush was noncommittal, but it is an idea that should immediately be endorsed by Congress with language strongly encouraging the President to do so as well. Israel has shown remarkable restraint, but, as Katsav told Bush, the terror attacks have become intolerable.

The Palestinians have demonstrated to most Israelis that they have no interest in peace. The only hope for resuming fruitful negotiations is if they make an effort to rebuild confidence. They must immediately stop all violence against Israeli civilians and military personnel. If they can maintain calm for 30 days, Israel should return to the bargaining table.

For its part, Israel could also offer a gesture. The one the Palestinians want, of course, is a settlement freeze. This cannot be linked to ending the violence. As Secretary of State Powell and the authors of the Mitchell Report have said, the issues are not related and a cease-fire must be implemented without preconditions. After 30 days of peace, Israel should offer the Palestinians a real settlement freeze, that is, no new settlements and no expansion of existing settlements for as long as the parties are talking and the terrorism stops. If another wave of violence begins, talks end, settlement activity resumes and Israel will use whatever force is necessary to end the threat to its citizens.

The conditions must be crystal clear. If there is a single act of violence — stones thrown at soldiers, snipers shooting at cars, mortars fired into settlements, car bombs at shopping malls – Israel will not negotiate. This can’t be the only sanction, however, the deadline must be backed by the United States and, ideally (though less likely), the international community. If the violence doesn’t stop for 30 days, all international aid to the Palestinian Authority should be suspended.

The plan offers the Palestinians the carrot of negotiations and a settlement freeze and the stick of economic sanctions. The biggest problem is that the most radical elements are given a veto over the peace process. It will only take one Hamas suicide bomber to blow up the deal. On the other hand, if Yasser Arafat can’t deliver even 30 days of peace, how can Israelis be expected to take any more risks for a long-term peace? Let him lock up every Hamas activist for 30 days if need be. He certainly wouldn’t hesitate to do it if they were threatening him.

Prime Minister Sharon has already declared a unilateral cease-fire. How much longer can Israel be expected to accept wanton attacks on its people? If bombs were exploding in Times Square or the center of Washington, D.C. or suburban shopping malls, you can be sure General Powell would not be calling for restraint, he’d apply the Powell Doctrine: “America should enter fights with every bit of force available or not all.”

My guess is that Sharon is holding his fire because the Bush Administration threatened him. We’ve already seen that Bush forced him to immediately withdraw troops that were sent into Gaza, issued a stern public rebuke after he used F-16s, accused him of using excessive force and criticized his settlement policy. Reminds you a little of Bush Sr., doesn’t it?

To force Sharon to accept the level of terror Israel has faced the past week, I suspect the Bush Administration issued some very serious threats about loss of military and economic aid, diplomatic support, and the future of relations between Israel and the Administration. I’m reading some of the old State Department documents and I can tell you that department, in particular, is very Machiavellian in its dealing with Israel and, historically, has waved a big stick to force Israeli compliance with U.S. wishes. We do know the Pentagon cancelled scheduled exercises as one way of punishing Israel, is resorting to public criticism generally eschewed by pro-Israel Administrations and is now reportedly considering the cancellation of an $800 million aid package promised by President Clinton.

Israel has endured more pain than any nation should, and certainly more than Americans would accept. It is time for the Administration to take off the gloves and make clear the Palestinians are waging war against Israel and that the violence must stop for the next 30 days. If it does not, Israel must protect its citizens and the U.S. should support its actions. The ball is in the Palestinians’ court; the clock is ticking.