New risks with Mideast cease-fire

As Israel and Palestinians work to maintain Tuesday's cease-fire, political fractures widen.

Reverberations from the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington are changing the status quo of tit-for-tat violence in the Middle East. The question is whether those changes will last.

Israelis and Palestinians moved to ease tensions this week as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared a cease-fire, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by pulling tanks out of Palestinian villages.

The moves came after intense US lobbying. Calming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to American plans for a broad antiterror coalition.

But even as the US push yields results, it is creating political risks for both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon that could, in turn, spell trouble for US attempts to build a strong and united alliance.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders face strong internal opposition to resuming negotiations now. Militant Palestinian groups have rejected Arafat's call for a cease-fire, while the right-wing politicians who form Sharon's core support base adamantly oppose negotiations.

"Arafat walks a very thin line and ... Sharon is under great pressure," says Hisham Ahmed, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "For the US, which is interested in quieting things down to maintain a coalition, this is a serious quagmire indeed. No wonder [Secretary of State Colin] Powell has been calling Sharon and Arafat almost every day."

Until Sept 11, the Bush administration took a hands-off policy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, repeatedly stating the two sides had to work for peace themselves. The assault on New York and Washington created a new political reality in which the Middle East is central.

With Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden in the crosshairs, the US is assembling an international coalition to retaliate for the attacks. As in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the US is courting allies within the Arab and Islamic world to create as broad an alliance as possible.

Many of those countries have been unhappy with the US's laissez faire approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what they see as a pro-Israel bias in US policy.

Since Sept 11, people in many of these places also perceive an anti-Islamic bent in American rhetoric, particularly after President Bush announced that the US was on a "crusade" - a word that reminds Muslims of the brutal Christian invasions of the Islamic world in medieval times.

To bring countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria along, the US has made efforts to reach out to the Arab world.

Secretary Powell has given Arab media extensive interviews to explain the US stance. And he has pushed Sharon and Arafat to start negotiations.

Arafat obliged on Monday by declaring a cease-fire. Sharon responded the next day by ending Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory and halting the "targeted killings" of Palestinian militants.

Both leaders have an interest in being on the right side of the US. But Arafat, mindful of his near-pariah status after backing Iraq in the Gulf War, is particularly anxious to be counted as a US ally. And both leaders face significant hurdles in getting to negotiations. Their failure to do so could lead to renewed conflict, jeopardizing US attempts to build its coalition.

Militant Palestinian groups are already rejecting Arafat's call for a ceasefire. On Tuesday, a spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas issued a religious edict, branding those who back the US against fellow Muslims as traitors.

While Hamas members say their military wing is likely to lie low for a while, they have no intention of putting down their arms for long.

"There's an occupation here, and it's legitimate to resist it," says a Bethlehem area leader, Abdul Majeed Atta. He says he is no relation to Mohamed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers in the World Trade Center attack.

Other groups echo the sentiment. "Palestinians have one choice only, to continue the intifada," says Khader Abu Abarra, a senior official of the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "[Arafat's cease-fire] is just to keep himself in the political game."

Marwan Barghouti, head of the main Palestinian Fatah faction in the West Bank, says his men will restrain shooting in areas under Palestinian control, but says he has no control over what happens in areas under Israeli or joint Israeli-Palestinian control.

It might be hard for Arafat to rein in the more militant groups. They have gained widespread popular support as Israeli closures, roadblocks, and checkpoints have made life for ordinary Palestinians increasingly difficult over the past year.

Arafat's hope, observers say, lies in the Israeli response.

"We've got to get a situation where the average Palestinian sees change on the ground," says a Western diplomat. "[This would] dry up support for the militant groups."

While the Palestinians need to see signs of progress, Sharon faces little incentive to move toward talks. Sharon has insisted that this cease-fire yield a 48-hour period of calm, after which Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres can meet.

The Israeli leader insists that another seven-day period of calm must pass before the two sides begin a series of political and security negotiations outlined in the Mitchell Report, an action plan drafted by an international panel led by Senator George Mitchell.

But Sharon's support base lies with right-wing groups that form an important part of his coalition. Like Sharon, these groups oppose any freeze on settlements - a condition of the Mitchell Report - and are against negotiations. If Sharon goes ahead with talks, these groups would likely bring down his coalition by leaving - forcing the prime minister to build a new coalition, or failing that, to face elections.

"[Sharon] would risk his coalition over settlements, and it would not hold over political negotiations," says independent political analyst Joseph Alpher. "Then we're looking at renewed political dynamic in Israel, which will delay any significant progress on peace negotiations even further."

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