Will for Mideast peace looks weak

rA June 28 pledge to halt violence is all but nullified following a weekend of continued violence in the Mideast.

Once again, a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians seems ready to crumble.

After more than nine months of open conflict, the two sides remain ripe with more than enough anger and antagonism to break a truce. But a more profound reason for the apparent failure of this round of peacemaking is that there is little reason to believe the two sides will have anything to say to each other if they do manage to stop the violence.

"Even in its best and most optimistic circumstances," says Israeli strategic analyst Mark Heller, "the cease-fire is a road back to dead-end negotiations." Palestinian commentators likewise say they can see little likelihood that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be able to reconcile their opposing visions. The two men have never even shaken hands.

The two sides have reached at least three agreements prior to this one to calm the situation - all of them unsuccessful.

Beyond the fragility of the cease-fire, the events of recent days have illustrated two troubling points about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first is that the situation seems impervious, for now, to the well-meaning interventions of outsiders. The second is that the risk of this conflict spreading is everpresent.

On Sunday, guerrillas from the Lebanese Hizbullah organization and Israeli forces traded artillery shells and other munitions for hours. The firefight broke out after Israeli fighters struck a Syrian radar site in Lebanon in retaliation for a Hizbullah attack on Friday that seriously injured an Israeli soldier.

So newspapers and officials in the Arab world and beyond - Iran, for example, is a major supporter of Hizbullah - excoriated Israel yesterday for its "escalation" of the conflict and demanded that the world recognize Mr. Sharon is gunning for a wider war.

Israel is always ready to defend its interests, no matter whose notions of legality it tramples upon, but in this instance, it stands on relatively firm ground. After occupying parts of Lebanon since 1982, Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces last year to a border demarcated by the UN.

Hizbullah continues to claim one parcel of land on the Israeli side of the border, but this lingering dispute is about more than real estate. Hizbullah was founded to oppose Israeli occupation, so the continuation of the struggle may serve the party politically. It also offers Hizbullah's backers - especially Syria - a way to pressure the Israelis.

The Israelis have stated bluntly that they will punish Syria for Hizbullah attacks against its soldiers. Hence the strike on the radar site.

No sign of a cease-fire

No matter how one sees the Isreali-Palestinian conflict - as a battle between tribes, or a struggle for liberation and independence, or a war against terrorism - there seems to be a desparate need for outside intervention.

The Palestinians say the only thing that can change the situation is international pressure on the Israelis; the Israelis make the same assertion about the Palestinians. In this situation, the most effective and powerful source of pressure is the US, but recent American efforts are proving to be ineffective.

"The situation is very difficult," Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN's Middle East envoy, told reporters in Gaza yesterday. "The last events of the last couple of days show how fragile the cease-fire is. All indications are now it will not hold."

This latest truce is the product of concerted international efforts that began June 2 with the mediation of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. More recently, some high-powered US officials - CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell - have intervened, in part to stem global concern that the US was not doing what it could to stop the conflict.

But even as General Powell was negotiating the terms of a "cooling-off period," events on the ground obeyed their own momentum.

Last Thursday - while Powell was in the region - Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli settler in the West Bank and injured another. By Sunday, the situation was worsening.

The day's violence began when Israeli forces encountered a group of Palestinian militants, killing two, whom Israel said were plotting an attack on settlers. The militant Islamist Hamas organization later said the two dead men were theirs.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said Mr. Arafat "is using violence and terror as the main way to persuade Israel to accept his terms."

Late Sunday night, Israeli helicopter gunships used missiles to assassinate three members of another militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. The strike, said Arafat, was a "severe violation of the cease-fire."

Yesterday morning, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine detonated two car bombs - killing no one but causing several Israelis to be treated for shock - in a suburb of Tel Aviv near the country's major international airport.

Reconcilable differences?

It is clear that both sides are frustrated. The Israelis say that Arafat could stop the violence if he wanted to and speculate that he does not want to.

The Palestinians argue that the Israelis - in maintaining their occupation of Palestinian lands - are providing no reason for them to halt their nine-month-old uprising.

Mr. Heller, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, says the situation will not change until the Palestinians accept that peace will require painful concessions even beyond those they made in recognizing the state of Israel. Palestinians counter that their rights - to their land and eventually to a state - aren't up for negotiation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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