JERUSALEM – Call us when you're serious about disarming militants — that's the message Palestinians are getting from U.S. mediators who have scaled back their presence in the region.
The apparent disengagement comes amid a deadlock in the U.S.-led "road map" peace (search) plan, Washington's growing troubles in Iraq, and the distractions of the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Israeli and Palestinian critics warn that reduced U.S. involvement will likely lead to more bloodshed, further harm America's image in the Arab world, and in the end bring on another round of U.S. mediation.
With the sides here so far apart on the issues, many previous peace moves have required active U.S. mediation — or pressure — to move forward.
But an ambitious effort by the former Clinton administration to broker a comprehensive peace settlement collapsed three years ago, and the Bush administration was initially reluctant to involve itself, fearing a quagmire.
In the wake of the Iraq war, however, the United States hoped that showing a renewed commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help repair its badly damaged image in the Arab world.
After a flurry of activity, capped by a June visit by President Bush to the region to launch the road map, the United States has scaled down its efforts amid continuing violence and disagreements that have stalled the plan.
A turning point was the Sept. 6 resignation of reform-minded but ineffectual Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search). In line with U.S. expectations, Abbas tried to wrest control of the security forces from Yasser Arafat, but was instead outfoxed by the veteran leader.
Abbas' resignation created turmoil, and his successor, Ahmed Qureia (search), has been unable to form a stable government. The United States says it is reserving judgment on Qureia — who is seen as more accommodating to Arafat than Abbas — until he puts together a Cabinet and takes control of security.
"The question is forming a government that is committed and has the resources to act against terror," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.
A Palestinian bombing attack on a U.S. convoy in Gaza earlier this month may have reinforced that view. Three American security guards were killed, and FBI investigators were stoned by an angry crowd at the scene.
Meanwhile, John Wolf, the head of the U.S. team monitoring compliance with the road map, is on home leave. A U.S. State Department official said Wolf's return to the region is "not being ruled out."
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration remains in daily contact with both sides.
"There is engagement, but don't forget that in the absence of concrete steps that are not ours to make, there is a limit to what we can do," the official said.
Palestinian officials say they have been told by the Bush administration it is waiting for a crackdown on the militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years of fighting.
Three Palestinian legislators heard that message last week in a meeting in Washington with David Satterfield, a senior State Department official. "We were able to understand from him that the Americans will stay outside until the Palestinians take some steps," said Kadoura Fares, a member of the delegation from the ruling Fatah movement.
The road map requires a clampdown, but Palestinian leaders, including Abbas and Quereia, have balked at using force against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah militants, saying they will not risk setting off civil war.
Qureia has proposed negotiating with the groups to get them to declare a unilateral cease-fire, then taking modest steps such as shutting down rocket factories and smuggling tunnels, and a ban on carrying arms in public.
Israel has rejected any truce, saying it is just a ploy for militants to buy time and replenish their arsenals.
The Americans also oppose the "truce first" approach, Fares said. Satterfield told the visiting legislators that the Palestinians need to take action to show they are serious.
The Palestinians argue they cannot go after armed men while Israel conducts its own hunt. "How can we set up a (police) checkpoint, while there is fire from Israeli tanks and helicopters?" Fares said.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel and the United States agree that the deadlock will continue until there is a change in Palestinian leadership.
"The best one can hope for is to bring down the violence and manage the conflict, but conclusive solutions will have to wait for a change on the Palestinian side," Shoval said.
Palestinians accuse Sharon of perpetuating the impasse by rejecting a cease-fire, keeping up army raids, enforcing suffocating travel bans and expanding Jewish settlements in violation of the road map.
They say the Israeli leader is exploiting the vacuum to ram through the idea of a tiny Palestinian state in parts of Gaza and about half of the West Bank.
"He is systematically implementing his vision to destroy the Palestinian national identity," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. "It's a sure recipe for anger, desperation and hostility."
Israeli analyst Joseph Alpher warned that by staying on the sidelines, the United States risks harming its own long-term goals, particularly the vision of a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.
Partition of the land will become increasingly difficult, as settlements expand and populations become more entangled — a momentum that is impossible to stop without intense intervention, he said.
With Israelis and Palestinians left to their own devices, the conflict is bound to get worse. "If it's worse, it's bad for American interests in the Arab world and Iraq," Alpher said.
"The United States will get blamed."