For now, peace gone in Mideast

Acrimonious words speak of widening gulf between Arabs and Jews in recent days.

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The Middle East peace process has been declared dead many times over the past few years. Today, the reports do not seem exaggerated.

Israel's declaration of a "timeout" in the peace process, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's harsh response Sunday have killed hopes for an early resumption of peace talks and raised the prospect of another sustained Palestinian intifadah (uprising against Israeli occupation).

The situation on the ground is grim. Two more Palestinian teenagers died yesterday from wounds sustained in fighting with Israeli soldiers. And the battle lines are being drawn in a suburb of Jerusalem that has come under repeated Palestinian fire.

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"I think we are on the way to escalation because ... they are shooting on us, and we are shooting back," says Lt. Col. Erez Winner, commander of an Israeli Army battalion in the West Bank.

"You are looking at a tense situation for a prolonged period of time" adds a Palestinian political analyst who declined to be named. "There is no option but this intifadah."

Most disturbing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Arafat appear to have lost faith not just in their peace negotiations but in each other. The two leaders have never been especially trusting of one another, but as recently as a month ago they seemed to be building a rapport. More than three weeks of street clashes, though, have led Mr. Barak to brand Arafat an untrustworthy partner for peace.

"Barak's timeout means he does not want to work with Arafat any more," says the Palestinian analyst. "When Arafat discovered that Barak was throwing him out, he bounced back to throw Barak out."

One reason for the lack of trust is that each leader fears the other has lost credibility with his own people. "Arafat's image is very much on the line," says Gerald Steinberg, a conflict-resolution specialist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "There is no question he is being undermined" by popular demonstrations in support of the uprising.

"I don't think that in this situation now Barak is a peacemaker," counters Sa'adi al Krunz, a Palestinian Cabinet minister. "He failed to get the confidence of his own people, how can he expect our confidence?"

Indeed, polls indicate that Barak's popularity is dropping among Israelis. He has governed without a parliamentary majority for several months.

In an atmosphere already polarized by violence, the two leaders are attempting to broaden their popular appeal by going to political extremes. Barak is negotiating the formation of a unity government with Ariel Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud party and one of the fiercest opponents of the peace process.

Barak met Mr. Sharon yesterday. Silvan Shalom, a Likud legislator, told Israel's Army radio that his party wanted assurances that Barak would not resume peace talks "two, three months from now" on the basis of the compromises Israel offered at Camp David.

Arafat has a firmer grip on his people's support than Barak, but he too has courted more extreme elements such as the militantly anti-Israeli Hamas movement. He recently released some Hamas political prisoners and has toughened his rhetoric.

"When he started the peace process, Arafat split the Palestinians," says Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader in Gaza. "Now he is in the right position in the eyes of all Palestinians ... to achieve Palestinian goals."

Few Palestinians expect any reduction in the violence soon. "We are determined to continue our efforts to get the [Israeli military] occupation to withdraw," insists Mr. Abu Shanab. "Nothing will stop us from this ... and this defense might develop into a popular military resistance."

The latest signs of that approach have come from Beit Jala, a Palestinian village adjoining Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem built on land Israel seized in 1967. Palestinian gunmen have taken advantage of the village's height to shoot at Israeli houses, prompting retaliation from Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships. "If [the shooting] won't stop, we will get to bombs by airplane" warns Colonel Winner.

For the time being, international diplomatic efforts seem to be exhausted. A United States-convened summit last week in Egypt produced a cease-fire that neither side honored, and Arab leaders meeting in Cairo over the weekend could not come up with a program of unified action in support of the Palestinians.

All this leaves the Israelis and the Palestinians alone to resolve their differences - a challenge that seems beyond them in the current climate of mistrust and vilification.

Both sides are contemplating unilateral actions. Israeli officials are studying plans for "separation" from the Palestinians, which would involve actions such as curbs on the movement of Palestinian people and goods, and the creation of hard and fast borders around the occupied territories.

The Palestinians, for their part, could declare their state. But with Israeli troops still patrolling more than half of the West Bank, Israelis fear that the Palestinians might use violence to try to force them out. "The scenario seems to be building towards a Palestinian declaration of statehood accompanied by blood and fire" says Professor Steinberg.

Short of such an apocalyptic outcome, the Palestinians have little option but to continue the intifadah, Palestinian leaders say. "We believe in peace as our strategic objective ... but we will not accept anything that will lower our expectations" says Dr. al Krunz. "We are going to have an independent Palestinian state in all the territories occupied in 1967 ... with its capital in Jerusalem, whether they like it or not."

"By saying 'go to hell,' Arafat is saying goodbye to the peace process," says the Palestinian analyst. "Both Arafat and Barak agree on something for the first time in many months: that the peace process has ended."

Steinberg echoes this sobering view: Barak's timeout and Arafat's response, he concludes, "reflect the deep seated - not just disappointment - but the sense there is no positive direction that can be found for the short term. It's sort of a dead end."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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