Historic chance for peace recedes

Palestinian bombing eclipses Arab-backed plan.

As the Arab states extended an unprecedented offer of peace to Israel and as a US envoy stayed in place to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, the Middle East yesterday braced itself for more war.

"It's all so depressing I can't really think about it," says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Regardless of who is to blame for what, there was an opportunity here which is in the process of being missed."

The Israeli government, reeling from a suicide attack that killed 20 people as they sat down to their Passover seder Wednesday night, planned its response. Palestinians stockpiled food and girded themselves for Israeli retaliation.

Israeli officials say they have become increasingly disenchanted with both the Arab offer and US mediator Anthony Zinni's two weeks of efforts to forge a cease-fire. Along with a recent UN resolution referring to a "state of Palestine," these diplomatic initiatives gave some observers hope that the darkness had reached the dawn. Not anymore.

Wrapping up a summit meeting in Beirut yesterday, the 22-member Arab League did agree to extend peace and "normal relations" to Israel if it withdraws completely from lands seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and if it agrees to address the fate of Palestinian refugees in accordance with a UN resolution adopted in 1948.

But those conditions, combined with doubts stirred by the level of discord at the Arab summit, make the initiative unacceptable to many Israelis, particularly those in the government.

The Arab initiative "is pretty much irrelevant, unfortunately," says Daniel Ayalon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's foreign policy adviser. "We are dealing now with serious issues of security and existence."

As for the Zinni mission, says Mr. Ayalon, "two weeks he is here, and he has not managed to declare a cease-fire. The problem is that [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat still is conducting a strategy of terror."

The Israelis say they have refrained from responding to recent Palestinian provocations, including several suicide bombings, in support of the US envoy's efforts. But the Wednesday attack in the coastal town of Netanya, which struck down families celebrating one of Judaism's holiest days, may be too much. "There is a limit to how much you can restrain yourself," Ayalon says.

'More devastation'

Israeli officials have been hinting in recent days that they are prepared to mount a massive invasion of Palestinian areas, one that would dwarf earlier efforts to arrest or kill Palestinian militants and seize their weapons. In Ramallah, a West Bank city that is home to Mr. Arafat and that has witnessed Israeli incursions of escalating severity, the mood yesterday was somber.

"We will see more more devastation, more blood, more suffering; it's going to go nowhere," says Khalil Shikaki, a US-educated political scientist, from his Ramallah office. The Israelis, he says, will respond to the Netanya attack "in a way that will reflect their desperate efforts to impress upon the Palestinians that they are more powerful and can kill more."

The strategy of militant Palestinians, of course, is much the same. In recent weeks, Palestinians of various political persuasions have seemed confident of winning a war of attrition against Israel, citing Sharon's waning popularity and other signs of division in Israeli society. More than 300 military reservists have publicly refused to serve in the Palestinian territories, and Israeli security officials have voiced anonymous but pointed criticisms of Sharon's tactics.

"We are going on with this," says Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the West Bank spokesman for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, the organization responsible for the Netanya bombing, referring to attacks on Israelis. "We are still under occupation."

Arafat's intentions

Palestinians have succeeded in unifying around the goal of ending Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for the most part they see no reason to desist from violence until that end is within sight. That is why Palestinian officials insist that there there must be a "political horizon" to cease-fire discussions.

While Zinni's current efforts include more of a political component than missions he undertook several months ago, Palestinian militants clearly are not impressed. Even the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group affiliated with Arafat's own Fatah movement, has engaged in terrorist attacks on Israelis during Zinni's mission, underscoring Israeli assertions that Arafat does not want a cease-fire.

Arafat and his aides appear to have invested more time and effort in furthering the peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.

Experts indicated in advance of this week's summit that the final declaration needed to be principled and vague to have much hope of appealing to dovish Israelis and world opinion in a way that would steer Israel and the Palestinians toward the negotiation table.

Concessions wanted

But in the event, the declaration's conditions and Arab fractiousness have discouraged the Israelis. Several heads of state declined to attend the meeting – in part because Israel prevented Arafat's travel to Beirut – and some participants demanded a level of detail that erodes the likelihood that the initiative will succeed.

Under the initiative, says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and an adviser to Sharon, Israel would have been asked to make "far-reaching and irretrievable concessions in exchange for a sort of promise that the Arab world will live in peace with Israel – and here we see that the Arab world doesn't live in peace with itself."

Rally 'round Iraq

But the summit wasn't all rancor and discord. In a rare instance of Arab unity, Iraq and Kuwait came to an agreement that could mark the beginning of a rapprochement for the first time since the former invaded the latter in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Adding symbolic weight to the agreement, Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah, Kuwait's most powerful Arab ally, embraced Iraqi presidential envoy Izzat Ibrahim, which drew thunderous applause from the delegates.

The Arab states rewarded Iraq by stating their "absolute rejection" of an attack against Iraq and warned that such a strike "would be considered a threat to the national security of all Arab states."

A Western diplomat in Beirut said that the "wording was stronger than expected" and clearly indicated the Arab world's opposition to a US effort to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But one delegation member said he "doubts" that the Iraqi government considers the deal "final and irreversible."

"Iraq is under pressure to moderate its stand" on Kuwait, the delegate says. "But its position could change if the Americans fulfill their threats to remove Saddam Hussein."

• Nicholas Blanford contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon.

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