Mideast: Back from the brink?

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

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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.

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."

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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.

A second scenario concerns the three Israeli soldiers captured by Lebanon-based Hizbullah fighters over the weekend. Israel holds Lebanese prisoners to use as leverage to press for the release of Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon since the 1980s. Hizbullah may trade the three newly captured soldiers for these prisoners. But the group is also demanding the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, a trade the government may refuse.

If there is no deal to win the soldiers' release, and Israel decides to use force to pressure Hizbullah, the result could be a strike against Syria, which Israel holds responsible for events in Lebanon. Israeli analysts say such an attack would be designed to minimize the chances of broadening the conflict, but there is no telling how such a move would play in the Arab states.

"What will [Syrian President Bashar Assad] tell his people if the Israelis strike Damascus?" wonders Dr. Said. "He will use his missiles" to hit back at Israel.

Besides an Arab-Israeli conflagration or an all-out conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, there is also the possibility of a civil war in Israel. During the past two weeks, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have become increasingly supportive of their kin in the Palestinian territories.

This development has pitted Israeli security forces against Arab-Israeli citizens and brought violent reprisals from Israeli Jews. The Israeli media are reporting extensively on this internal conflict between Arab and Jew, which in many ways worries Israelis more than the disturbances in the territories.

Barak mishandled Arab-Israeli politicians, says Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, but Israel's Arab citizens will pull themselves back from the brink. "It's not going to escalate into civil war because the Israeli-Arabs have too much to lose," Prof. Sandler says. "They have Israeli citizenship and that is better than citizenship in a third-world country."

Many experts say that the violence of recent days is not an omen of war but a death knell for the current phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, initiated in Oslo in 1993.

Nadim Shehadi, an expert on the peace process at London's Royal Institute of Strategic Studies, says the mainly bilateral Oslo framework did not allow for the resolution of complex, regional issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.

For example, the two sides attempted to address the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees at the failed Camp David talks in July. Mr. Shehadi points out that with refugee communities in four countries in the region and UN involvement, settling this problem requires a broader forum.

The violence "may be an excuse to start reexamining the process radically, with a new American government and a [possible] new Israeli government. It's not the end of the peace process in the absolute sense, but just the end of this stage."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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