The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be dying because its two chief protagonists — Prime Minister’s Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat — lack the political will or the political strength to push it to a successful conclusion.
After the latest terror outrages in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, this assessment can be heard in both Israeli and Palestinian governing circles, and it is being articulated louder than ever.
In two attacks taking place two hours apart on Sunday, suicide bombers drove into an Egged bus filled with Israeli soldiers and settlers and, later, exploded a bomb near an Israeli border police jeep.
The attacks claimed the lives of at least seven Israelis and on American and left more than 50 injured.
The attacks, launched by members of the fundamentalist extremist groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, were reportedly not coordinated by the two groups. But they succeeded in provoking yet another wave of frustration with the pace and spirit of the peace process.
On the Israeli side, the frustration was implicit in statements made by two prominent dovish ministers, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, in the aftermath of attacks.
Both Sarid and Baram have espoused the view that the settlement of Netzarim and Kfar Darom, located near the sites of Sunday’s two terrorist bomb attacks, should be evacuated because of their isolated location in Gaza.
“This is not the moment to issue political calls,” Baram said on Israel Television on Sunday night, “but I have not moved one iota from my position. On the contrary, I am strengthened in my position.”
When the interviewer pointed out that Baram’s statement put him at odds with the prime minister, Baram affirmed that this was indeed so, and added pointedly, “This is not the only matter of dispute between us.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has repeatedly said that under the Israeli- Palestinian accord, Israel has no obligation to move the settlements and should not do so at this time.
Sarid, a leader of the Meretz bloc, Labor’s coalition ally, aroused a political storm over the weekend when he not only called for the dismantlement of the two settlements, but added that the step should serve as a model for the evacuation of some settlement in the West Bank.
After Sunday’s two suicide bombings, some opposition figures and government ministers publicly attacked Sarid for his remarks, which they sought to link to the attacks.
But Sarid hit back, terming these assaults on him demagoguery and reiterating his position that the isolated Jewish settlements should be evacuated.
Sarid added that “many” Cabinet ministers held the same view, though he conceded that this was not the time to embark on withdrawal, because it would look like a surrender to terrorits.
The importance of Baram and Sarid’s positions goes far beyond the polemics surrounding them, beyond even the glaring dissonances that they expose in Rabin’s Cabinet.
The two ministers, along with the others at the Cabinet table who support the idea of dismantling certain settlements, are in effect challenging the moral and political foundation of Rabin’s rule.
The thrust of their argument is that the logic of the Palestinian self-rule accord, though not its actual working, necessitates the dismantling of these outlying settlements.
The alternative, they say, is to employ whole regiments of soldiers to protect the settlements.
The problem inherent in deploying large numbers of soldiers to protect a relatively small number of settlers became evident Sunday, when seven such soldiers met their deaths aboard the bus outside Kfar Darom.
The soldiers’ presence at the settlements, moreover, poses a constant challenge and target to the Islamic militants who are determined to drown the prospects of peace in Jewish blood.
Israel’s rightist opposition accuses the prime minister of wantonly endangering the lives of settlers with his peace policy.
Rabin’s critics from within his own coalition, in effect, agree. But their conclusion is diametrically different from that of the opposition.
The Likud says Israel should halt the peace talks altogether. The coalition critics call instead for the dismantlement of endangered settlements in order to allow the Palestinian Authority to consolidate its control over Gaza, if not the West Bank as well .
Rabin’s critics within his own coalition maintain that the peace policy cries out for new political boldness on the part of the prime minister.
And with the popular standing of the government in steady decline — a trend that is likely to accelerate after Sunday’s incidents — there is no guarantee that the coalition doves will remain passively loyal to Rabin.
On the Palestinian side, there are indications of similar disagreements among high-level officials.
In a first-ever public appearance in Tel Aviv on Sunday before a high-powered audience of Israeli public figures, the police commander of the Palestinian Authority, Gen. Nasser Yussef, dropped hints of his frustration with Arafat’s political restraints.
After offering the oft-made Palestinian argument that in more than 27 years of occupation, Israel failed to quell terror in the territories and after pledging that his forces would soon successfully root out Hamas and Islamic Jihad armed activity, Yussef shed light on his own constraints.
In a pointed answer to a question from Gen. Shlomo Lahat, the former mayor of Tel Aviv, as to whether Arafat was stopping him from acting more vigorously against the armed fundamentalists, Yussef said: “You should come to Gaza and ask him that.”
Palestinian sources say the Palestinian police and security service have the firepower to overwhelm, disarm and disband the military wings of Hamas and Jihad. But, they say, Arafat’s political will is missing to allow them to do the job.
The problem according to these sources, is that Arafat fears being branded by his enemies as a “collaborator” with the Israelis — especially after the April 2 explosion at a Hamas bomb factory located in an apartment building in the heart of Gaza City. Islamic fundamentalists claimed the incident was a joint Israeli-Palestinian operation.
True, Arafat had his security forces arrest more than 150 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists after Sunday’s two terrorist attacks in Gaza.
In addition, a military court Arafat created two months ago sentenced on Monday an Islamic Jihad activist to 15 years in prison for recruiting suicide bombers.
But for many, Arafat’s latest actions against the militant fundamentalists in his midst — limited until recently to rounding up the usual suspects after a terror attack, only to release them within a matter or days — represented too little, too late.
A well-placed official in the Palestinian Authority said Sunday, “There are criminals everywhere. But what is no less criminal is letting them act.”
Like other critics of the chairman, this official is increasingly troubled by the sense that the opportunity for peace and Palestinian independence is being squandered by a lack of leadership and determination on Arafat’s part.
On the Palestinian side, such disgruntlement is usually stifled quickly, for there is no democratic process through which dissent can gain effective political expression.
But one thing seems certain: The fact that similar sentiments are being heard among official Israelis and official Palestinians — even the most ardent supporters of the peace process — bodes ill both for the respective leaders and for the process itself.