In Mideast, a sense of denouement

Sharon orders an end to the biggest ever military occupation in West Bank.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nears the 18-month mark, the situation on the ground has never been worse. But the level of global engagement in attempts to ease the crisis is growing more intense by the day.

After two weeks of large-scale Israeli military invasions of Palestinian cities and refugee camps and a succession of Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, people on both sides are angry, scared, and confused. "We are in the abyss; there are rivers of blood every day," says Terje Roed-Larsen, the top United Nations envoy in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

But the US vice president and the US Middle East peace envoy are in the region, the UN Security Council this week approved a resolution looking forward to the emergence of a Palestinian state, and diplomats are still discussing a Saudi Arabian call for a comprehensive peace deal.

The upshot is a sense of impending climax – but just what sort of climax, no one can say.

On both sides, the political momentum may remain in favor of aggressive, violent tactics that are likely to doom peacemaking efforts. In such circumstances, practically no one is optimistic that even intensified diplomatic efforts can bring about a breakthrough.

A senior Israeli security source, who declined to be identified, said this week he was "not hopeful" about the intervention of US envoy Anthony Zinni, who arrived in Jerusalem yesterday.

Diplomats in Jerusalem say that the introduction of a "political horizon" is a prerequisite for the success of cease-fire efforts, but the Israeli official suspects that "the Palestinians will jump over into the political stage" without taking all the steps the Israelis think necessary to restore their sense of security.

"This is impossible for us," the official adds.

Recent political developments in Israel suggest that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have to shift his policy in one of two ways. Since he came to power a year ago, he has deftly kept together a "unity government" that includes ministers who argue for stern military measures against the Palestinians as well as more dovish politicians who want to see moves toward a negotiated settlement.

Now this coalition is cracking: Yesterday two of Israel's most hawkish politicians, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, formally resigned from the Cabinet. While Mr. Sharon has sometimes uttered soothing words about a political settlement with the Palestinians, he has acted in an increasingly hawkish fashion, in part to keep Messrs. Lieberman and Elon on board.

The departure of the two ministers may be a fork in the road for Sharon, says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. If the premier senses that his rival, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is tapping frustration among right-wing politicians in an attempt to unseat Sharon, he may adopt even tougher tactics against the Palestinians.

But if he senses "he's still OK with the right wing," the diplomat says, Sharon may feel inclined to move toward the left, easing off on the military front and opening a path to some sort of political discussion with the Palestinians. Finding common ground with politicians such as Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, leader of the pronegotiations Labor Party, will not be easy.

The two men quarreled in a cabinet meeting Wednesday over the Israel Defense Forces' re-occupation of the West Bank city of Ramallah. Sharon was reportedly angry with Mr. Ben-Eliezer's decisions to curtail some operations in the city. Sharon's office later issued statements saying the rift had been resolved and that a withdrawal would begin Thursday night.

A similar uncertainty reigns among the Palestinians. After massive Israeli military operations in their midst – Israel now has an estimated 20,000 troops in the Palestinian territories – support for violence against the occupier remains undimmed.

Without Israel withdrawing militarily and offering some road map to statehood, Palestinian officials say, cease-fire discussions will be pointless. The senior Israeli security source conveyed his own version of this reality, saying that Israel was increasingly worried about the mainstream Palestinian political faction, Fatah, and its willingness to return to the path of peace.

Fatah militants have carried out most of the attacks against Israeli targets in recent weeks, ranging from suicide bombings to sniper shootings of soldiers. Although Fatah was founded by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the Israelis are skeptical about his capacity to keep the organization in line, especially its militia, which is known as the tanzim. "The tanzim is now ruling Arafat more than Arafat is ruling the tanzim," says the official.

Although conceding that Arafat was the "reference" or symbol of the Palestinian cause, Fatah will not accept a return to the incremental peace process initiated after meetings in Oslo, Norway, in the early 1990s, said a Fatah leader in Bethlehem, who would only allow his first name, Mohammed, to be published. "Since Sharon has no political program to submit, we will not go back to the Oslo way; Oslo is finished," he says.

Renewed diplomatic activity, spurred in part by Mr. Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat whose work was instrumental in the Oslo process, is geared toward bringing the two sides back to the table. Toward that end, the US gave a rare endorsement this week to a UN resolution on the issue. Late last year, US officials began to speak explicitly about a Palestinian state, and a month ago Saudi Arabia unveiled a plan under which the Arab world would make peace with Israel if the Israelis allowed the Palestinians to have their state on all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with minor adjustments, and their capital in Jerusalem.

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