The popular term for what is happening in Israel these days is “cycle of violence,” but there’s another kind of cycle involved too; one that the United States is responsible for.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe (One for the Road )

When it first came into office, the Bush administration jettisoned the Clinton-era policy of high-level involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While apparently partial to Israeli support, the administration remained largely distant from the conflict, only intermittently calling for restraint on one side or the other or sending an occasional mediator.

Then, post-Sept. 11, when there was a feeling that calm was needed in Israel in order to facilitate the “war on terrorism,” the White House dispatched retired general Anthony Zinni to try to seriously push the Tenet and Mitchell peace plans. When violence picked up, he was recalled. The violence is raging as fiercely as ever, but Zinni is heading back to the Middle East this week.

Over time, there have also been shifts in who the administration feels needs to show “restraint.” State department officials demand restraint from the Israelis for a while, then make demands only of the Palestinian Authority, before again telling Israel to cool it.

It’s the cycle of policy.

One day the administration wants to broker peace, the next it decides the Israelis and Palestinians need to handle the whole mess themselves. We blame Israel for escalation today, but say Palestinians are at fault tomorrow.

This oscillation of policy is not the cause of the current violence in Israel, but it is most likely a significant factor in its continuation. We are correct in being generally supportive of Israel, but by jumping into the conflict when, and only when, it gets too intense, we continually signal that we won’t make any serious, lasting push for peace, but also won’t let the conflict rise to the point where either a military solution is imposed by Israel or real concessions become seen as necessary by both sides.

After saying he wouldn’t come back until the situation is calmer, it seems odd to send Zinni back in circumstances worse than when he left. However, with Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to the region this week, where he is likely trying to sell our grudge match against Iraq and doesn’t want too many questions about Israel, the action’s political motivation becomes clear.

Not that we shouldn’t be engaged, but, regrettably, it is unlikely that more talks will lead to any long term cessation of violence at this point. Sending our emissary back under fire and criticizing legitimate Israeli retaliation for terrorism demonstrates to Palestinian terrorists and their leader, Yasser Arafat, that no matter what they do, the U.S. will always hold back Israel from responding too fiercely.

As suicide bombings, shootings and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants (who are increasingly from groups linked directly to Arafat and his party) continue to terrorize Israeli civilians, the Israeli government has taken the fully understandable position that it will retaliate for such attacks against both terrorist organizations and the government that harbors them (thanks to the capture of a boat loaded with Iranian weapons and confirmation of Palestinian Authority involvement by its crew, we know Palestinian terrorism is state sponsored). Israel has carried out this policy for over a year now, but never to the extent necessary to halt the violence, likely because of U.S. pressure.

It has become apparent that there is currently little interest among the Palestinian leadership for negotiation or compromise. When asked about such things, they rail against Israeli actions, demanding an “end to the occupation,” an “end to Israeli atrocities” or something similar. What they seem to be forgetting is that it is they who threw away the best chance at an end to the occupation at Camp David. And while Israel has undoubtedly been responsible for many civilian deaths, those deaths are accidents and the inevitable result of being forced to fight terrorists intentionally hiding amongst civilians.

The U.S. puts a huge handicap on efforts to resolve the conflict by continuing to change its policies to suit the feeling of the moment. Most of the time the administration is rightly placing the burden of halting the violence on the Palestinians, but these strange interludes where we tell Israel to reexamine its policies are unhelpful. They convey the impression that the terrorism or the rhetoric has somehow swayed us, rather than the impression that we’re acting out of political expediency, which is usually the case.

The best outcome for Zinni’s latest mission would obviously be the achieving of a lasting ceasefire. But if the old pattern holds and terror against Israel continues, its government should be free to suppress terrorism through the means it chooses. We should not stand in the way if it chooses military force.

Let’s remember that this fight has been forced on Israel. It made a sweeping peace offer that was met with cynically calculated violence. Americans should recognize it has to respond to terrorist attacks. Doing nothing or taking measured responses that don’t make terrorists feel the fight isn’t worth it are not adequate. These aren’t lone crazies who can’t be deterred. Suicide bombing is not just a natural consequence of occupation that can’t be stopped. Terrorism continues because we keep giving Palestinians reason to believe it can.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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