New calculus in Mideast math?

Tensions eased yesterday, amid a flurry of diplomatic visits to end the crisis.

Most days, Feda Zubaidi makes the short walk from her home in the West Bank city of Ramallah to monitor the confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

The two sides trade stones for rubber-tipped bullets. Often the days climax in exchanges of gunfire amid the smoke of burning tires and the sting of tear gas.

Like many Palestinians, Ms. Zubaidi is watching and waiting, but not to see another outburst of violence. "We have to have something from the Israelis," she says, "in order not to lose our 100 martyrs for nothing."

In fact, 86 Palestinians - including those from the territories and those with Israeli citizenship - have died during two weeks of bloodshed. But Zubaidi's math is close enough, and her statement hints at the morbid bottom line that will underlie high-level negotiations aimed at resolving the crisis: What will the Palestinians get for their dead?

One possible answer: declaration of statehood.

Contemplating this calculus is anathema to Israeli officials, who see it as an acknowledgment that they will have to reward the Palestinians for using violence. However, as one US official puts it, "It's the question everyone is asking."

Violence does seem to have paid off in the long struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Gideon Levy, a reporter and columnist at Israel's respected Ha'aretz newspaper, wrote over the weekend that "all of Israel's moves toward peace, and in particular all of its concessions, came only after especially painful cycles of violence."

Despite Israeli protestations that Arabs will not achieve anything through force, Mr. Levy argues, "we have also shown them that violence is the only way open to them."

Other Israelis reject this rendering of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. They insist that the past two weeks of violence are part of a Palestinian strategy to pressure the Israeli side into softening its position at the negotiating table.

They point to militant sermons by some Islamic leaders and evidence that street demonstrations are being organized by Palestinian groups to argue that this new uprising is a tactical maneuver, not a manifestation of popular upset. "People here are not stupid," says political analyst Barry Rubin, who frequently writes in the English-language Jerusalem Post newspaper. "[Israelis] are not going to make concession after concession to people who use violence and who talk about destroying them."

Be that as it may, still other Israeli thinkers are contemplating just how to bring the two sides together.

One solution, says Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, may be for Israel to allow the Palestinians to declare an independent state. This issue has already been the subject of a dispute between the two sides, since Israel wants to see a Palestinian state emerge only from a negotiated agreement.

In order to discourage a unilateral Palestinian declaration, the Israelis have threatened to impose a package of sanctions, and the US has said it would reconsider the aid it provides the Palestinian Authority.

Even though the Palestinians have chafed at this opposition, so far they have given in to the pressure not to go ahead.

But Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, as Mr. Heller and other analysts note, needs to have something to show for his "martyrs," and declaring a state may fit the bill.

This formula would also allow the two sides to resume negotiating the most difficult issues, such as the future of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, on a state-to-state basis that would provide a new framework for their dialogue.

But it must be noted that such a plan may be pie in the sky. Israeli government spokesman Nachman Shai said yesterday, when asked about Israel's position toward the declaration of Palestinian statehood: "We are not very positive on that, and our position on it hasn't changed at all."

The two sides seem to be narrowing their differences on another measure that could bring them back to the table: the appointment of a fact-finding panel or a commission of inquiry into the violence.

Mr. Arafat has demanded an inquiry in order to show that the violence was the result of Israeli provocation and that Israel has used excessive force. But the Israelis have rejected any suggestion that their security measures should be subject to international scrutiny. The problem, Mr. Shai says, is the "assumption that someone has to accept responsibility, and Israel finds that totally unacceptable."

Even if the two sides do agree - which is still very much in doubt - it is not clear that the Palestinians in the streets would be satisfied with what amounts to the formation of a committee.

That is why the leaders, mediators, and diplomats now trying to find a way to end the violence and resume peace talks are groping for a measure that enables Arafat to show that his people's sacrifices have not been in vain, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to demonstrate that he is not weak.

Mr. Barak's political future is very much in question. He has probably gone further than his predecessors in the pursuit of peace, thereby igniting the wrath of his opponents. But he has little to show at the moment other than a resumption of violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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