Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Must Balance Own Interests and Peace
In wake of last week's blasts, Netanyahu wants a crackdown on militants Arafat may not control.
JERUSALEM — The Middle East peace process, called a "brick-by-brick" endeavor by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1994, today looks more like a house of cards.
It suffered another blow last week when two suicide bombers struck a crowded Jerusalem marketplace, killing 15 and wounding 170 just as Israeli and Palestinian leaders seemed open to a Washington-hatched compromise formula to restart peace talks, which broke off four months ago.
Now, the debate rages over whether such acts of terrorism can be prevented - and whether each side has the will to do things that are politically unpopular to put the Oslo house, built by the 1993 accords, back together.
For that to happen, analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must risk angering his right-wing constituency by returning to the negotiating table even in the wake of terror, and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser Arafat must disregard Palestinian sentiment in the streets by cracking down on Islamic militants.
Mr. Netanyahu blames Mr. Arafat for permitting the bombings to take place by allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant Muslim organizations, to function relatively freely in territory under his control.
Israeli officials say that in the best-case scenario, Arafat has been lax, and in the worst, has given tacit approval for violence. Netanyahu rejects the Palestinian explanation that because of abject disillusionment with the peace process and Netanyahu's hard-line policies, desperate individuals commit acts that cannot be foreseen by the PA.
"Terror has an address," Netanyahu often says, referring to the entrenched, often-popular militant groups that recruit the bombers, facilitate their missions, then provide financial support to their families.
Whether the local branches of these groups had a role in the bombings is yet unclear. There is speculation that the perpetrators may have been sent by "outside" leadership based in places like Jordan and Syria.
Moreover, many here insist that the PA is no more able to thwart every attack than New York City police would have been if someone had not tipped them off last Thursday about the plot to blow up a New York subway station.
"Even when the Israeli government was in control of the territories, these suicidal attacks took place and Israel, with it massive security capabilities, could not stop them," says Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian legislative council and a expert on Hamas at Bir Zeit University.
Mr. Abu Amr says Israel's closure of travel in the West Bank and Gaza, preventing council members from moving between cities, ties the PA's hands.
"Okay, there is a problem now and we need to solve it, but how are we supposed to do this if we can't move freely?" he complains. "Don't tell me that Mr. Arafat has not been doing his best.... I think Netanyahu just wants to find a pretext to justify his failure."
Jacob Perry, the former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, says that both sides are right.
"The fact is that you cannot gather intelligence to prevent the planning of every attack," he says. Nor can Israel really "seal off" the territories," says Mr. Perry. "The only way to make it hurt less is fighting in a determined way, with conscientious and cooperative efforts from both sides," he says.
Both Palestinians and Israelis say that Arafat has dealt with Islamic militants as an on-again, off-again battle. Eighteen months ago, when Hamas carried out a string of four suicide bombings, Arafat arrested activists and also put pressure on much of Hamas's social network - from schools to soup kitchens to health clinics.
But that was when the dovish Labour Party was in power. Then, Arafat could point to major achievements - such as the very advent of the PA and its control of West Bank cities and most of Gaza - to remind Palestinians that he had brought real improvements to their lives.
Now Arafat is sometimes viewed as a man in cahoots with the Islamic enemy - both because that has been Netanyahu's stance since he was a candidate and because Arafat has significantly mended relations with Hamas.
Arafat's West Bank security boss, Jibril Rajoub, has warned Israel that he will not carry out a broad sweep of Islamists like last year's blitz. And analysts call such a sweep unrealistic.
"Arafat can't do what he did a year-and-a-half ago," says Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies and a professor at Al-Najah University in Nablus.
Mr. Shikaki says that most Hamas leaders in the territories have decided that since suicide bombings ultimately hurt average Palestinians and sometimes breed resentment, the group had at least temporarily put aside deadly attacks. He suspects the bombers may have come from Hamas groups based outside the West Bank and Gaza, over whom Arafat has little or no control.
Israel demands action before getting back to talks. The Palestinians reject such "dictates" and say there's nothing to talk about until the collective punishment against them stops. But the divisions within in each society seem to have faded since the bombing.
Hamas figures have praised Arafat for his restraint, while the Israeli opposition leader, Ehud Barak, has voiced only muted criticism of Netanyahu. In this climate, Dennis Ross, President Clinton's Middle East envoy, will arrive later this week to try to start rebuilding the house of Oslo.