In Mideast, a little land for a little peace

Israel agrees to pull forces out of Gaza and Bethlehem.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are resurrecting an old formula – land for peace – to fashion a small, tenuous cease-fire.

Israel has agreed to withdraw its forces from Bethlehem, one of the seven West Bank towns and cities they occupy, and from positions in the Gaza Strip, perhaps by midweek. In return, Palestinian security forces will resume control and revive their efforts to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking Israel.

Both sides say the onus is on the other to make the deal work. The Israelis say the Palestinians will have to stop violence, and the Palestinians say Israel must actually withdraw and refrain from military actions in other parts of the West Bank that might inflame people in Bethlehem and Gaza. There are conflicting reports about the timing of any withdrawals.

No one is suggesting that this "Gaza and Bethlehem first" arrangement constitutes a broader return to the principle of land for peace – the notion that defined the peace process initiated in Oslo, Norway, in 1993.

"Not on a general scale," says Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But if the Palestinians succeed in restoring security, he continues, "that could lead not to a reinstatement of Oslo, but to a new start."

Still, reasons for skepticism abound. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdul Razaq Yahya reached the agreement Sunday evening, and by yesterday morning all of the major Palestinian militant groups had denounced it, saying they would continue their attacks against Israel.

The intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remain unclear. "The prime minister," says a Western diplomat, referring to Mr. Sharon, "always has been pretty good at allowing himself to be taken one step back before he advances two steps forward."

According to this analysis of Sharon's actions, advances are defined as the moves Sharon makes to undermine and destroy the PA, and backward steps as efforts to negotiate peace with it.

Mr. Ben Eliezer has his own reasons for pushing the agreement. He is the head of Israel's Labor Party, which has long advocated a negotiated solution with the Palestinians, and likely will have to run against Sharon in elections that may occur as early as January 2003. Labor agreed to join Sharon, who heads the rival Likud bloc, in a coalition government last year, and its popularity has suffered as a result.

"I think [Sharon is] willing to give it a chance," says Mr. Shoval. "But he has no illusions that as long as the present Palestinian leadership is still in place – even if there is success in Gaza and Bethlehem – [there] would be a complete change in the situation."

Mr. Arafat has yet to convince Israel and many international observers that he is willing to forgo violence. But with the US demanding a new Palestinian leadership, he has reason to promote a cease-fire arrangement in order to show he is capable of reform.

The problem is that Arafat has long had trouble marshalling political and popular support for a return to negotiations. For nearly two years, Palestinians have said overwhelmingly that they favor violent "resistance" to Israel's occupation of their lands.

Zuhair Manasrah, Arafat's newly appointed head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, says he will personally oversee the PA's efforts to regain control and restore security in Bethlehem. He says the PA has the popular backing to do the job and that that "we are intending to do our all to make it succeed."

But he concedes that the arrangement is built on the same land-for-peace premise that undergirded the defunct Oslo process. "I hope both sides have learned the lessons" of the past two years, he says. "I hope the Israelis have realized that the technical use of power doesn't bring security and that the Palestinians have realized that violence doesn't bring freedom from occupation."

Remarks like those suggest the two sides may be tired and bloody enough to return to substantive negotiations. On the other hand, says the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "it's just too early" to tell if the "Gaza and Bethlehem first" agreement represents a turning point.

If the Israelis are encouraged by the results of the agreement and proceed to a broader de-escalation of the conflict, the official says, such a development might lead to a deal among the Palestinian militant groups to agree to a cease-fire.

Gaza and Bethlehem first, he adds, "is essentially the first step in a dance to try to break out of a cycle and not the beginning of a process."

Meanwhile, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants clashed yesterday in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. The Agence France-Presse news service reports that Israeli forces critically injured a Palestinian man during fighting in Nablus and killed a Palestinian teenager in a village just outside Jenin.

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