Will latest Mideast cease-fire hold?

After five days of US-brokered talks, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to put down their guns yesterday.

The gunfire may be subsiding, but Israel and the Palestinians have opened a new stage in their confrontation by agreeing to a US drafted agreement on a cease-fire to end more than eight months of violence.

Regardless of whether the cease-fire holds, and there is much skepticism in this regard by analysts on both sides, the objectives of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remain at loggerheads.

Mr. Arafat would like to see a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity and an end to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as soon as possible.

Mr. Sharon, by contrast, would like the Palestinians to accept a disjointed West Bank and Gaza Strip dominated by Jewish settlements.

The collision course in objectives promises to play itself out in a struggle over how closely the cease-fire is linked to a freeze on Jewish settlement building and how extensive the freeze is.

A total freeze on settlement activity was outlined as a confidence-building measure in the report of an international commission headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell. The report has been embraced by the United States and European Union, although Washington has been vague about how far the freeze should go.

Political gambits

Arafat and Sharon are each seeking to use international pressure and diplomacy to box the other into a corner. Rather than bring the two into a more cooperative relationship, the cease-fire agreement may only add a new dimension to their contest.

"What Sharon is doing now is based on the premise that, whatever happens, Israel must have American support, and, hopefully, also Western European support," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report magazine.

Citing Israel's declaration of a limited cease-fire last month and Sharon's refraining from retaliation for a devastating bombing in Tel Aviv on June 1, Mr. Susser says Sharon hopes that the resulting international sympathy "will create goodwill for Israel if the cease-fire develops into negotiations."

If the cease-fire breaks down, however, the international community "would see how difficult it is to deal with the Palestinians, the breakdown would be blamed on them, and Sharon would have American understanding for much wider military action," he adds.

Arafat, meanwhile, by agreeing to the cease-fire move, is using international backing to help stave off pressure by Sharon to destroy the Palestinian Authority and to advance toward gains at the negotiating table, in the view of Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Polling and Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"For Arafat, the key is survival. He finally realized the difference between this government and the previous Israeli government [headed by Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak]," says Mr. Shikaki. "He realized that this government was determined to destroy him, whereas the Barak government wanted to save him in order to save the peace process."

The details...

The Tenet document, negotiated by CIA Director George Tenet, has not yet been made public. But Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper said it stipulated that the Israeli army would refrain from offensive operations in Palestinian Authority (PA) territory, and that within a week of the resumption of security cooperation, the army would have to submit a timetable for withdrawing to the positions it held before the outbreak of the uprising on Sept. 28, 2000.

A Palestinian official said the PA has committed itself to arresting and interrogating militants who plan to commit attacks against Israel, which falls short of Israel's demands that the PA re-arrest militants it released at the start of the uprising.

The question of arrests, which will be unpopular with many Palestinians, points up the domestic cost for Arafat of agreeing to the cease-fire plan, especially with no immediate gains to show for it. The cease-fire was blasted yesterday by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, as "just American pressure to protect Israeli targets from the Palestinian resistance. "Anyone who arrests someone will face popular confrontations, so I do not think there will be mass arrests in the coming months."

Sharon, meanwhile, is incurring the animosity of Jewish settlers for agreeing to the cease-fire. After a woman was wounded yesterday by a shooting near a West Bank settlement, Pinhas Wallerstein, a settler leader, said: "We expected attacks. Until someone shouts the emperor is naked and the murderer is a murderer, we will remain pawns in the government's international negotiations."

Public criticism

Supporters of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a potential rival for leadership of Sharon's Likud party, have also been flaying the prime minister for not responding with devastating strikes to the Tel Aviv bombing and shooting incidents in recent days.

On the other hand, if the cease-fire leads to peace negotiations, Sharon will face pressure from his Labor party coalition partner to offer more to the Palestinians than the 42 percent of the West Bank he has previously specified.

"If Arafat returns to negotiations and stops the terror, this is liable to put the national unity government to a real test, said Industry Minister Dalia Itzik. "Arafat and his refusal to cease the fire was the unifying factor behind this government. The position of Labor is clear. We seek serious and genuine negotiations to advance the peace process. I'm not sure all the elements in the coalition agree to this."

But if the Palestinian public does not see signs of a settlement halt quickly, the cease-fire will be in trouble, warns Palestinian lawmaker Azmi Shueibi.

"If the Israelis will not stop the settlement activity, the fire will restart. The factions will say to Arafat: 'You promised but did not deliver.' "

Arafat may have the toughest time with his own predominant faction in the the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah, predicts Shikaki.

"Fatah has promised the masses that the intifada will lead to the end of occupation. Arafat has to show Fatah that what he has gotten is the beginning of the end of occupation. He has to show them the objective is still there though the tools are different."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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