Mideast peace effort travels in slow lane

The latest effort at Middle East peacemaking is getting off to a slow start.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week made a play for the high road, effectively ordering his troops not to shoot first, but Palestinians have not reciprocated, and the violence has continued anyway.

US diplomats charged with trying to broker a stand-down have met with Mr. Sharon, but Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has been too busy visiting France, Egypt, and Jordan to meet the Americans. "Sharon has made his gesture," says a US official who declines to be quoted by name. "Now we're trying to see Mr. Arafat in an effort to advance frameworks and schedules for negotiations."

The impasse is plain to see. The Israelis refuse to offer any concessions to the Palestinians or even to commit to substantive negotiations until the violence stops. The Palestinians say they are in no position to call off their uprising, or intifada, until it is clear that they will get some tangible benefit from the Israelis. Their logic is that there has been too much blood spilled on the Palestinian side to allow an unconditional return to peace talks.

But the new peace effort - inspired by the recommendations of a committee led by former US Sen. George Mitchell - is causing some people to think about the direction of events.

The driving force behind the intifada is a militia known as the Tanzim, Arabic for "organization," which is part of the dominant Palestinian political faction, Fatah. On Wednesday evening a Tanzim member in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, the scene of numerous gun battles with Israeli forces, described how Tanzim fighters had used a heavy machine gun to shoot at Israelis.

Apparently breathless from the confrontation, he would not give his name. But he said the peace moves had shaken things up among the Tanzim members he knows. "Some want to stop, and some want to continue," he said. "We're all disagreeing with each other."

The Palestinian gunfire from Beit Jala, which seriously wounded an Israeli octogenarian, was the second such firefight since Sharon ordered his troops not to initiate confrontations. Palestinian gunmen also attacked two Israelis at a West Bank settlement Wednesday, killing one of them. In Gaza on Wednesday a firefight injured 38 Palestinians, in what Palestinians say was one of several incursions by Israeli forces into Palestinian-controlled areas.

The Israelis assert that Arafat could stop the Tanzim, and even more militant organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if he wanted to. But most analysts say that the chain of command is murky and that militant groups may sense enough popular support to defy Arafat if he sought to halt the uprising and return to negotiating with the Israelis.

Any sort of cease-fire, says Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist with contacts on both sides of the conflict, "will be very difficult for Arafat to enforce - not because he can't, but because he is not receiving the political collateral he needs to say the intifada is over and we're going back to the negotiating track."

Still, Sharon's unilateral gesture of ordering his troops not to take the initiative, does seem to put the ball in Arafat's court. As he shuttles around Europe and the Middle East, his aides have said he is devising a response to the Mitchell report.

In the meantime, Arafat and his aides have been floating ideas they have repeatedly advanced during the past eight months of conflict. One is the introduction of an international force to protect Palestinian civilians from "Israeli aggression;" another is a call for another summit meeting to discuss how to implement the Mitchell recommendations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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