Analysis / A Hot Welcome for a Silent Zinni

"Anthony Zinni's visit to Israel and the territories influenced the level of violence," said a top IDF officer Thursday. "But not for the better," he added, "instead of calming things, it has so far contributed to an escalation."

"Anthony Zinni's visit to Israel and the territories influenced the level of violence," said a top IDF officer yesterday afternoon. "But not for the better," he added, "instead of calming things, it has so far contributed to an escalation."

The officer was speaking before the attacks in Baka a-Sharkiya and the bus near IDF Camp 80, but the trend was clear - another desperate attempt was underway by Palestinians to hurt Israeli soldiers and civilians.

On the eve of Zinni's arrival, Military Intelligence predicted just such a development, and if they were surprised it was only for the worse - Yasser Arafat, they say, has avoided even lip service, much less any gesture of goodwill toward Zinni and did not instruct his people to halt attacks.

In one of his first meetings with Zinni, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer advised the envoy to lower his expectations from the mission. Arafat, Ben-Eliezer explained, won't change strategy to the point of stopping the terror and violence - but if he cracked down, even tactically, and reduced the volume of attacks, that would be satisfactory.

Israel won't be totally pleased, and will continue to demand more action, but compared to the current situation, moderating the violence to the levels that followed the June 1 Dolphinarium massacre, and later the September 11 attacks on America, would be helpful. Then the defense establishment could consider lifting the sieges and closures, and increasing the number of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel, so as to relieve the economic distress in the territories.

Zinni listened, but barely responded. That's how he has been in most of meetings so far. His first days he spent learning. Sometimes he asked some pointed questions: "How flexible can you be?" "Will you really insist on seven days of quiet?" "And if that quiet comes, will you agree to shorten the confidence building measures period from six weeks to four?"

Meir Dagan, the reserve major general appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to head the cease-fire negotiations with Zinni and assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns says Zinni, is working like an American. "An Israeli buys an appliance and never looks at the instructions until it goes wrong. An American won't plug it in until he's studied the instruction manual from first page to last." Dagan refused to comment on the content of the discussions so far.

Top officers from the IDF and Shin Bet put on an impressive show for Zinni, explaining the history of the Palestinian violence since June 2000 - when the IDF withdrew from South Lebanon. With tables and charts, the message was that the Palestinians are tired of the struggle, feel it's leading nowhere, and it's out of control (tactically, not strategically, as one of the officers in uniform said.) Yet despite that or maybe because of it, there's been an escalation. For Arafat, they said, terror is a Clausewitzian means to a political end. ("War is a continuation of politics.")

On the ground and amid growing despair, violence has become in itself and the participants are like overtired kids way past their bedtime who can't fall asleep and just drive their parents crazy.

"We make a note of their organizations, when we come across a cell that has Hamas operatives beside Tanzim or security forces personnel, and that's proper," said one security officer. "But it's also misleading because there is not necessarily any cooperation at the top levels where it's every man for himself and enmities and rivalries are rife. At night, in a refugee camp, three young friends who grew up together - a policeman, a Hamas activist and a Tanzim teen might get together. They regard violence against Israel as the only thing to do; they decide to take their guns or find some explosives and do an action."

The Shin Bet manages to collect information, a lot of it, that is of high quality as well as vast quantity about planned attacks - who's getting organized, where they plan to go and what they plan to do. Just a few days ago, for example, there were 70 specific details in the alerts. Most of the attacks are foiled, and that's not always made public, but the Shin Bet is like a winter meteorologist, able to predict we'll need umbrellas, but not necessarily able to warn of a full-fledged flood.

Our biggest failure, said one of the field officers, is that we still haven't found a way to distinguish between enemy activists and the innocent civilian population, which may not be sympathetic to Israel, but is where the enemy operates. One of the permanent places where friction is inevitable are the checkpoints.

When Zinni traveled the West Bank this week with the Palestinians, the checkpoints used "VIP regulations" crafted after the lesson learned from the shooting attack at Muhamed Dahlan's convoy at the Erez Junction last summer. Troops were briefed to be especially careful, and officers were posted at some of the checkpoints. The Zinni trip passed peacefully.