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For now, peace gone in Mideast

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

By Peter Ford and Cameron W. Barr Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2000


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

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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.

"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.