Calls for U.S. presence in Mideast met with skepticism

WASHINGTON — Some in Washington are calling for a U.S. or international military force to curtail escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, but plans so far are too vague to get off the ground.

In theory, a peacekeeping force would create a buffer between clashing Israelis and Palestinians, reducing tension and violence. But analysts say it could be disastrous, with American troops becoming targets for terrorists or interfering with Israel's post-attack anti-terror operations.

In recent days, the White House has issued statements supporting Israel's efforts against Hamas and reiterating the need for terror to stop before the parties can progress on the "road map" peace plan. But there has been little official discussion of sending in U.S. troops.

Analysts say there is little chance of U.S. troops becoming involved in the conflict.

The calls for an American presence in the region — often heard when violence intensifies — are an attempt to find an alternative solution at desperate moments, analysts say, and aren't based on any well-vetted plan for a U.S. role.

But some say the recent calls for a peacekeeping force show a clearer understanding that military force is needed to prevent terrorist actions and that the Palestinian Authority is not up to the challenge.

At the moment, a group of monitors led by envoy John Wolf and consisting mostly of CIA officials comprises the U.S. presence on the ground in the zone of conflict. Wolf and his team are not engaged in negotiations or peacekeeping; they simply are charged with documenting Israeli and Palestinian compliance with their obligations under the road map.

In the past week, as violence again surged after a brief glimmer of hope following the Aqaba summit, several lawmakers and Middle East experts have suggested various plans for a stronger U.S. presence.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested using NATO forces, including U.S. troops, to provide a force that could minimize violence until Palestinian forces could take over security responsibility.

"It would not be a risk-free mission," Warner said on CNN on June 11, the day a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 17 Israelis in Jerusalem. "But mind you, the NATO forces would be composed of a number of countries. Possibly some of our Americans would be a part — a relatively small part — of the total equation."

Neither lawmaker went into details of how a U.S. presence in the region would work. The only detailed plan for major U.S. participation in a peacekeeping effort was penned recently by Martin Antic, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now is director of the Sabah Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

In a Foreign Affairs article last month, Antic suggested a trusteeship for the future Palestinian state. U.S. and international trustees would oversee the establishment of the state, including the creation of a constitution and economic institutions.

U.S. and international special forces and other troops would be placed at the trustee's disposal, charged with maintaining order, suppressing terrorism and restructuring the Palestinian security services, Antic wrote.

"The operations of the trusteeship force could actually be more effective than current Israeli counterterrorism operations in Palestinian towns and refugee camps to the extent that they could rely on a reconstituted Palestinian security service that would have a greater ability to penetrate terrorist organizations than Israel does," Antic wrote.

He said the force would need to be large enough to "impress Israelis and Palestinians with its seriousness," but that the total number of troops could be less than 10,000.

But the Bush administration seems unlikely to embrace the trusteeship idea in whole, and has shown no willingness to entangle U.S. forces in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We've looked at this situation many, many times," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "Third-party monitoring is what we've consistently talked about, because we felt, upon careful analysis of the situation, that was the best thing to help the parties achieve their goals."

Israeli officials, who balk at the idea of an international monitoring or peacekeeping force, also wouldn't welcome a purely American force.

"Israel has never asked anyone to defend us," one Israeli official in Washington said. "The whole idea of someone defending us goes against the very foundation of the U.S.-Israeli relationship."