Israeli ambitions for peace more modest now

The US tried to stop the riots and get Palestinian-Israeli talks on track yesterday.

A week of violence in the Palestinian territories and within Israel proper is shrinking Israeli expectations of what the negotiations can and should ultimately achieve. The brass ring cherished by both President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak - a comprehensive solution to the most intractable aspect of the Middle East conflict - now seems to dangle way out of reach.

At press time yesterday, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright struggled to bring Mr. Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the same table.

The mood was not conciliatory: "We hold Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority responsible for initiating this wave of violence," Barak told reporters.

Mr. Arafat, meanwhile, demanded "protection for Palestinian civilians and an international committee of inquiry" into how the violence erupted.

Despite the difficulty in restoring any semblance of momentum in the peace process, most analysts say that Israelis and Palestinians will continue working toward a solution to their conflict.

But Israelis, perhaps including their prime minister, are downshifting their ambitions and want to concentrate on an interim peace deal that puts off the most difficult points of disagreement. And as has happened after previous outbreaks of unrest, others want to reassess even dealing with a counterpart who insists on resorting to violence, as many Israelis view Mr. Arafat.

"There is a sense, not only among the public but also among Barak's advisers, that they don't have a reliable partner," says Ze'ev Maoz, head of the Graduate School of Government and Policy at Tel Aviv University.

And many Israelis have been jarred by a new dynamic - fervent, pro-Palestinian protests by members of Israel's Arab minority, the million or so Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship and constitute nearly a fifth of the population.

On Tuesday, the military announced deployments to protect Jews in the north of the country, where most Israeli-Arabs live, meaning that the Israel Defense Forces feel they must defend Israelis from Israelis. "It's depressing," says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

The increasingly suspect loyalty of this Arab population raises questions about the anticipated outcome of the peace process. "A Palestinian state might have a destabilizing effect on its neighbors - the Israeli-Arabs in Israel and the Palestinians in Jordan," Professor Inbar says.

And while many international observers have criticized Israel for the degree of force it has used in attempting to stifle demonstrations, there is little discomfort here with what the Israeli Defense Forces have done in the Palestinian territories. But there is stern internal criticism of how Israeli police have handled Israeli-Arab demonstrations, in which some 50 protesters have been killed.

"Don't start shooting at them," is the advice Avraham Tamir, a retired general in the Israeli Defense Forces, offers the police. He notes that the prime minister has ordered an inquiry into Israeli-Arab grievances and the police response.

Like many Israelis, Mr. Tamir regrets the death of Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old boy killed in Gaza over the weekend as a French television camera recorded the grisly scene. "We have had many pictures like this in our history," Tamir says. "Let's move on."

Apart from their surprise at the anger of the Israeli-Arabs, most Israelis have watched the past week's events without much shock and dismay. For one thing, they have seen the Palestinians in action many times before. Yesterday, for instance, the militant Palestinian group Hamas called for intensified confrontations on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

The riots are pure politics, says Amir Weitmann, a graduate student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "It has nothing to do with frustration. Nobody goes to riots just like that. Nobody goes out to die like that unless they are told to."

The idea that Palestinians are in the streets because of their own concerns over the peace process and what it will produce strikes many people here as spin. As Mr. Weitmann observes: "Arafat uses the method of negotiation which he knows best, which is violence."

Israeli media reports have made much of the role of the tanzim, a part of Arafat's Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The tanzim is a loosely organized militia whose members have been involved in the protests, and Israeli analysts see it as the instrument of Arafat's control over the riots.

"To some extent he's able to calibrate the level of the violence," says Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center. Arafat's control is not exact, he adds, but the PLO chairman can halt the unrest. "It may take one or two days, but it will stop."

The peace process has demanded trust on both sides. The Palestinians have had to trust that the Israelis will give them land for peace, and the Israelis have had to trust the Palestinians to lay down their arms.

But from the Israeli perspective, a week of rioting - apparently organized by Palestinian paramilitary groups - erodes their capacity to trust, and strengthens the case of Israelis who advocate more conservative or pragmatic strategies.

Tamir, the retired general and a longtime advocate of exchanging land for peace, foresees a renewed push for a peace deal in the weeks ahead, but one tempered by a greater sense of realism about the other side.

The Palestinian unrest is partly the result of frustration and partly the result of orchestration, he says, but it is not a reversal of strategy. "I don't think [the Palestinians] will decide to stop the peace process, to declare a war, to declare a Palestinian state, to turn all the plates upside down."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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