The missing ingredient for Israel, Palestinians: trust

Scattered clashes yesterday marred a cease-fire, seen as more of a pause.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are not doing enough to solidify the fragile cease-fire of recent days, according to analysts and officials on both sides of the divide.

The Israeli government has restrained itself from retaliating with force for a Palestinian suicide bombing on Friday that killed 20 Israelis. On Saturday, Mr. Arafat joined Mr. Sharon's two-week-old call for a cease-fire.

While the level of violence has dropped sharply, a firefight in Gaza yesterday and a handful of more minor incidents only served to suggest that the cease-fire would end up being more of a pause.

But even if pressure from the US and other nations makes the cease-fire a reality, there is further gloom about the chances of fruitful peace talks between these two leaders. The most immediate Israeli demand is to see the Palestinians arrest and detain members of militant organizations as a sign of their intent to curtail violence against Israel. The Palestinians say they need the Israelis to agree to a complete settlement freeze or take some other tangible step as incentive to maintain the cease-fire.

But the Israelis reject a settlement freeze, and the Palestinians are refusing to make the arrests.

"We have no evidence that Mr. Arafat is reimprisoning those human time bombs, the operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have been attacking Israeli population centers over the past two weeks," Sharon adviser Dore Gold told French news agency AFP yesterday.

Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, says the Palestinian leader also must halt "incitement" against Israelis. The Palestinian media mixes coverage of the intifada with strident anti-Israeli rhetoric, a situation that the Israelis say contributes directly to violence.

"I can't see it holding on the Palestinian side," says Gershon Baskin, a longtime Israeli peace activist, of the cease-fire. "There's no political gain to show the people." "I don't think this cease-fire can hold," adds Mouin Rabbani, who directs the Palestinian-American Research Center in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I can't imagine that the Israelis are willing to give it an appropriate political context that will make it meaningful."

That context could come from a framework for renewed negotiations on the core issues that separate the two sides, but Sharon has declared he is only interested in discussing interim agreements rather than tackling the permanent resolution the Palestinians want to see.

The peace process that began in 1993 and went into a deep freeze when violence broke out last fall was built on the idea of interim agreements that would lead to greater trust between the two sides. But trust is now nonexistent, which is why the Palestinians are insisting on talks that would address root causes of the conflict. "If something doesn't happen very fast [to shore up the cease-fire], people will say all Arafat has done is surrender to foreign pressure," Rabbani says.

As Israelis and Palestinians cast around for a way out of the sticky bog of their conflict, their eyes turn relentlessly to the US.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated over the weekend that he was reluctant to become personally involved at this stage. "There is a limit to how much you can just drop in if the two sides are not ready to have a serious engagement," he told CNN. "I will talk to the parties concerned in person when there is something that I can bring to the table that is useful, helping to solve the problem and not just chat for the sake of chatting."

Mr. Powell's predecessor, Madeleine Albright, was fond of calling the US the "indispensible" nation and nowhere does that seem more true than among Israelis and Palestinians. The US is Israel's major supporter - sometimes its only supporter - and the Palestinians seem terrified of alienating the Americans.

Even German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who worked hard during a visit to Israel to bring about the cease-fire, now says the US should step in to help with its implementation. CIA Director George Tenet reportedly is flying in to do just that.

But if these efforts do solidify the cease-fire, there is little confidence that Sharon and Arafat could take the next step toward genuine peace talks. Aside from his insistence on interim agreements, Sharon's idea of a Palestinian state is a good deal smaller and more chopped up than was discussed at unsuccessful talks the two sides held last year.

"As long at there is a 'national unity' government in Israel with Sharon in the lead," says Mr. Baskin, "the Palestinians have nothing to negotiate." Professor Sandler is not so pessimistic. "These two people are not youngsters," he says of Arafat and Sharon. "Both would like to leave some message behind."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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