A gulf grows between Mideast rhetoric and action

As Bush floats a plan for a provisional Palestinian state, Israel tightens its grip on the West Bank.

With Israeli forces taking up semipermanent positions in a half-dozen Palestinian towns and cities, the clock of Middle East peacemaking has now turned firmly back to the mid-1990s, when Israel occupied much of the West Bank.

President Bush Monday presented a proposal for a provisional Palestinian state, but loosening the death grip that binds Israelis and Palestinians is a monumental task. The conflict is more and more defined by the contrast between the two sides' official statements in favor of peace and their warmaking on the ground.

Monday Israeli forces, for the third time in a month, entered the main West Bank city of Ramallah and surrounded the already-pulverized compound of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat. Israeli missiles also struck a car in the Gaza Strip carrying a leading Palestinian militant, killing him and five other people in an apparent assassination.

Mr. Arafat has spoken in the past weekabout his willingness to agree to peace proposals he once rejected and has taken steps recently to reform the PA in keeping with Israeli and US demands.

But with or without his acquiescence, violence against Israelis continues, actions that carry the broad support of the Palestinian people. In the space of just three days last week, two Palestinian suicide bombers and a gunman killed 31 Israelis. Arafat's power, analysts say, is waning.

"Increasingly a chasm has developed between official and public rhetorics," says Mouin Rabbani, head of the Palestinian-American Research Center in Ramallah, "more so on the Palestinian side."

Building a wall

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ostensibly remains committed to negotiating an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, but his Cabinet last week authorized a military reoccupation of parts of the West Bank until suicide bombings stop.

His government has also begun building physical barriers separating the two peoples, including 215 miles of walls and fences, creating a de facto border that amounts to an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the leading Israeli proponent of what was once termed the peace process, on Sunday took the rare step of threatening to resign from the Cabinet, media reports say, citing his concern over the de facto annexation.

'Holding the land'

Mr. Sharon's combination of reoccupation and separation has left many Israeli analysts puzzled. "I don't think we're moving in any direction right now," says Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "We're just sort of dancing around the same indeterminate, inconclusive debate."

One Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he believes that Palestinian attacks would decline sharply following a "massive military campaign." But he adds that "in the long run, force has to be complemented by political moves" – an implicit criticism of Sharon's refusal, with the exception of a single, fruitless meeting with three Arafat advisers, to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Men of peace?

To some extent, peacemaking is out of character for both Sharon and Arafat. The Palestinian leader founded his Fatah movement in the early 1950s on the premise that Palestinians should take up arms themselves against Israel, rather than relying on intervention from Arab states.

Sharon, a former general who has fought in all of Israel's wars, has maintained a longtime commitment to "holding the land" – particularly the strategic hilltops of the West Bank that are now home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.

To be sure, Arafat signed a peace deal with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, and Sharon was instrumental in implementing Israel's peace with Egypt, including the removal of Israeli settlements from the Sinai Desert.

Waning support for Arafat

But today it is seeming more and more unlikely that Arafat has the will or the power to contain Palestinians bent on fighting Israel and that Sharon can renounce the West Bank settlements he worked hard to build.

Arafat's forces put Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, under house arrest yesterday and arrested other members of the organization, but the Palestinian leader remains thoroughly hobbled. For one thing, says Mr. Rabbani, destructive Israeli incursions have shattered the capacity of Palestinian security forces to arrest militants, raised the political costs of doing so, and soured the attitude of Palestinian policemen to do anything on Israel's behalf.

A poll of Palestinians conducted in late May and early June by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed the popularity of militancy is outpacing that of Arafat. Nearly 66 percent of respondents said Israel's most recent six-week invasion of the West Bank, known as Operation Defensive Shield, had caused them to increase their support for suicide bombings. Nearly 59 percent said that Defensive Shield had made them stronger supporters of Hamas. Just under 39 percent said the same for Arafat.

Sharon has never fully agreed to a US-devised cease-fire plan that calls for a complete halt to settlement construction. Amid calls for Israel to withdraw from some hard-to-defend settlement as a gesture to the Palestinians, Sharon has said that no settlements will be dismantled for the time being.

Broadly speaking, a renunciation of violence by the Palestinians, and an Israeli withdrawal from most settlements, are considered the central ingredients of any viable peace between the two sides.

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