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Looking Back at 5757: in Israel, Waning Peace Process Sparks New Terror and Isolation

It was not a good year for Israel. On both the domestic and international fronts, a sense of regression, back to the days before the Middle East peace process, permeated the atmosphere.

Two developments highlight the disappointments:

In the global arena, Israel found itself starkly isolated for the first time in several years. The U.N. General Assembly passed several resolutions condemning Israeli policies. Only the United States and tiny Micronesia voted with the Jewish state.

At home, the specter of war — absent for years — returned to haunt the nation. Soldiers and civilians alike were taking seriously the army’s talk of possible conflict with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

The Israel Defense Force even carried out a simulation of retaking territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip already transferred to Palestinian self-rule.

By year’s end, the peace process had degenerated to the point that American officials were required to intervene to help revive the moribund negotiations.

U.S. intermediaries were even necessary to revive high-level meetings between Palestinian and Israeli security and intelligence officials.

Moreover, four years after the historic Sept. 13, 1993, Rabin-Arafat handshake, both sides were hinting that a new framework might be necessary if the peace process had any chance of succeeding.

The first significant deterioration in the peace process came just 10 days after the Jewish year began last September.

On the night after Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the green light for the opening of a new entrance to an ancient tunnel near the Western Wall.

Muslims saw the decision as an assault on their religious rights on the Temple Mount, site of the Mosques of Omar and al-Aksa.

Their anger sparked a wave of violence that swept through the West Bank and Gaza Strip like a brush fire. Israel was stunned as Palestinian police turned their guns on Israeli soldiers, killing 15.

Dozens of Palestinians were killed and hundreds more were injured before the Palestinian Authority was able to rein in the rioters.

Some Israeli officials charged that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and his top aides had instigated the violence and could have controlled it if they wanted.

The Israeli government insisted that opening the tunnel entrance was fully within Israel’s sovereign rights — and in no way infringed upon Muslim rights on the Temple Mount.

But Netanyahu himself clearly was surprised by the intensity of the Palestinian reaction.

In the aftermath of that violence, a new belief emerged that the peace process was not as irrevocable as had been thought.

The one ray of light for those who championed the Oslo process was the successful conclusion in January of the Hebron accord.

This complex agreement — representing the final Israeli pullback from the major Palestinian cities on the West Bank — had eluded the previous Labor-led government.

Netanyahu, who came to office in June 1996 as the head of a conservative- religious coalition, had declared himself committed to implementing the Oslo accords, even though he remained fundamentally critical of them.

The Hebron accord appeared to prove the sincerity of that commitment. Netanyahu rammed it through his Cabinet despite objections from the hard-liners, one of whom, Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, resigned in protest.

The accord included a promise to move forward to the next phase of the peace process: three further redeployments from the rural areas of the West Bank, to be concluded within 12 months.

But within weeks of the transfer of 80 percent of Hebron to Palestinian self- rule, the landmark accord was in tatters.

Israel’s decision to turn over 2 percent of the West Bank in the first of the further redeployments was vehemently rejected by the Palestinian Authority. That pullback, which would also have included 7 percent of the land under mixed rule, was never implemented.

On the eve of the second scheduled further redeployment, in September, Israel declared that no pullback would take place until the Palestinian Authority took concrete steps against terrorism. Without such moves, the Netanyahu government maintained, the Oslo process might as well be considered dead.

Tensions have remained high in Hebron, where some 500 Jewish settlers reside in the 20 percent of the city still under Israeli control.

In March, the government gave the go-ahead for a large-scale building project at Har Homa, a barren area in southeastern Jerusalem. The area had long been planned as a new Jewish suburb, but had been put on hold because of political considerations.

Since that decision, to which Netanyahu has resolutely cleaved despite international condemnation, negotiations and security cooperation with the Palestinians have virtually ceased.

The crisis with the Palestinians intensified after a Hamas suicide bomber struck at a Tel Aviv cafe in March, killing three Israeli women.

It was the first terror bombing in Israel since Netanyahu’s election on a platform that had promised “peace with security” and had sharply criticized the previous Labor government’s handling of the peace process in the wake of a series of suicide bombing attacks in the heart of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

While those terror attacks took place during an active peace process, Palestinian militants proved this year that stalled negotiations were no deterrent to their violence.

On July 30, two suicide bombers struck simultaneously in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, killing 15 Israelis.

That attack set back U.S. efforts to bring about a resumption of Israeli- Palestinian talks.

Although security cooperation was partially resumed — the CIA now participates in meetings of senior Israeli and Palestinian intelligence officials — the trust that had been painstakingly built up between the security services has not been restored.

Israel’s arrest of three Palestinian policemen in July on suspicion of planning an armed attack on a Jewish settlement further exacerbated the tensions.

Then, three weeks after the Mahane Yehuda terror attack, Arafat embraced leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad at a two-day `national unity’ conference, at which he defiantly rejected Israel’s demands for a crackdown on terrorism.

On Sept. 4, three suicide bombers struck in Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, killing five Israelis. That attack did not deter U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from making her first official visit to the Middle East.

But in her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Albright found a peace process in tatters. She warned that she would not return to the region unless both sides took steps to restore confidence in the process.

The worsening relations between Israel and the Palestinians spilled over to the rest of the Arab world.

Tensions with Egypt intensified, and Arab states in North Africa and the Persian Gulf moved to freeze their burgeoning relations with the Jewish state. It was unclear whether Israel would be invited to participate in the regional economic conference scheduled to take place in Qatar later this fall.

Compounding this situation was an ongoing mini-war in southern Lebanon, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters regularly exchanged deadly fire.

Tensions escalated in August after the Islamic fundamentalist group launched its heaviest Katyusha rocket attack on Israel in more than a year, sending Israelis in northern communities to bomb shelters. Israel’s measured response and appeals for calm seemed to be aimed at avoiding a repeat of April 1996, when Israeli troops launched an operation intended to curtail Hezbollah rockets.

Dozens of Israeli soldiers who were involved in defending the security zone in southern Lebanon were killed during the year, either in clashes with Hezbollah gunmen or in tragic accidents.

Seventy-three soldiers died in February when two military helicopters en route to southern Lebanon collided over northern Israel.

In September, a botched commando raid in Lebanon left 12 elite Israeli soldiers dead.

These incidents sparked renewed debate over Israel’s policy in Lebanon and calls from some quarters for a withdrawal.

As the year wore on, Netanyahu’s handling of the peace process and, indeed, his governance in general, drew increasing criticism, even from his own Cabinet colleagues.

While many Israelis though that the prime minister had not moved sufficiently to further advance the peace process, others thought he had betrayed their confidence and gone too far.

The most serious domestic crisis was the so-called Bar-On Affair, which erupted in February and at one stage looked like it would topple the government.

A police inquiry recommended that the premier and other officials be indicted for illicitly conspiring to appoint a political crony to the post of attorney general.

In the end, Israel’s attorney general and state prosecutor decided not to indict either Netanyahu or his justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi. The only senior politician to face trial will be Aryeh Deri, the Shas Party leader, who is already on trial for bribery.

Despite getting off the hook, Netanyahu no doubt will be among the most fervent reciters of the ancient prayer: “Let the old year end with its curses, and let the new year begin with its blessings.”

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