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Mideast: Back from the brink?

A bevy of world leaders shuttled to the Mideast this week to stop the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence.

By Cameron W. Barr and Nicole Gaouette Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2000


To judge from televised scenes of Israeli helicopters launching missiles and Palestinians resting on their funeral biers, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Middle East was at the brink of war.

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But officials and analysts in the region and beyond insist that another Arab-Israeli war is not yet upon us. An all-out confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians or between Israel and its neighbors is not inconceivable, but neither is it very likely.

"There is no possibility of any kind of war," says Nabeel Amro, a Palestinian Cabinet minister. "We and the Israelis do not need this kind of confrontation."

At the same time, many experts also agree that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in its current incarnation - the Oslo accord reached in 1993 - is dead. If the Israelis and the Palestinians are to reach a peace, it may have to be the product of a new framework.

That may be one reason why both Israeli and Palestinian officials are sounding desperate for outside mediation and new proposals. "This is the time for political movement and we are waiting to receive any initiative," says Mr. Amro.

Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel's acting foreign minister, told reporters on Oct. 10, that "we persist to look for avenues for peace." He warned that Israeli forces would respond to violence with violence, but he also sounded a tad more conciliatory than the tough tone Prime Minister Ehud Barak has struck in recent days. "We don't have any interest in tragedy," Mr. Ben Ami said. "We want peace with the Palestinians, regional stability, and a reasonable deal for everybody."

There is no shortage of outside help: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov have been shuttling around the region. President Clinton has urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to host an emergency summit, but the Egyptians say they will not do so as long as Israel attempts to pressure the Palestinians with an ultimatum.

On Oct. 7, Barak gave Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat two days to stop the violence, and on Oct. 10 the Israeli Cabinet decided to extend the deadline for an unspecified number of days. The breathing room gives some people hope. "I think we can rein in the situation," Mr. Annan said. "I think we have a window of opportunity to do it."

After more than two decades of peacemaking between Israel and Arab states, and seven years of peace talks with the Palestinians, it seems hard to believe that all this could go up in smoke. "I can't imagine it, it's illogical, it's unreasonable," says Abdel-Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, referring to another Arab-Israeli war. "But human history is full of foolishness."

There are at least two dangerous scenarios. One is a sudden escalation in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel - such as a mass killing of civilians on either side. Such a tragedy might inflame passions to such an extent that the authorities could lose control of populations bent on fighting.