JERUSALEM, Sept. 25 (JTA) — One year after the start of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel, relations between the two sides cannot be much worse.
Despite Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s repeated renunciations of terrorism — even as far back as 1988, at the height of the first uprising — Palestinian acts of terror have become almost a daily fact of life for Israelis.
In response to those attacks, Israel this week took the first step toward the creation of a buffer zone between it and the West Bank.
This came exactly eight years to the month after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn and embarked on a peace process in which there was supposed to be no need for buffer zones.
Now, in the absence of a negotiated settlement between the two parties, Israel is embarking on a course toward unilateral separation from the Palestinians.
When the Israeli army set up a closed military zone in the northern West Bank this week, Israeli officials said the 20-mile-long buffer was meant to stop suicide bombers from infiltrating into Israel.
Arafat led the chorus of protests from Palestinian officials, calling the move a “serious escalation.”
According to the rationale behind the Oslo peace process, the two sides would adopt a series of confidence-building measures that would ultimately lead to a full peace accord.
But after the past year of violence — a year filled also with a virtually unending series of accusations and counter-charges — the two erstwhile peace partners now have virtually no confidence in the other.
Even the most diehard Israeli doves no longer believe that reconciliation between the two peoples is possible in the foreseeable future.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a peace negotiator who also served as foreign minister in the government of Ehud Barak, recently told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Arafat is too much a captive to his own image as a freedom fighter to take the necessary steps for reaching a historic compromise with Israel.
The Palestinians, for their part, are just as suspicious of Israelis.
Their belief that Israel wants to perpetuate its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and retain all its settlements there provided the fuel that ignited the latest intifada — and kept it aflame throughout the past year.
“The more settlements established on occupied territory, the more land is needed to provide ‘security.’ There then can never be, under this logic, any withdrawal or trading land for peace,” said Arjan el Fassed, an editor of the pro- Palestinian electronic intifada Web site.
For their part, Israelis currently see little reason to trade land for peace — a move, as they see it, that will only provide the Palestinians with more territory from which to launch attacks on Israel.
As the deadlock continues, and the death toll mounts, which side is doing better?
Not the Palestinians.
A year after the outbreak of their intifada, they have scored neither territorial nor political gains.
They have more than 600 dead and thousands wounded.
The Israel Defense Force encircles their cities and villages, and blocks their major traffic arteries. Car travel from Nablus to Hebron, a distance of some 50 miles, now takes some six hours by roundabout routes.
Unemployment is at an all-time high, and the standard of living at an all-time low. Hotels have shut down. Places like Bethlehem that used to thrive on tourism are empty.
As Islamic militants have stepped up their terrorist operations, many Palestinian Christians have emigrated to countries like Australia and Peru.
Israelis, however, are not faring much better.
Some 171 Israelis have been killed.
There have been nearly daily drive-by shootings on West Bank roads that were once relatively safe.
A series of ruthless terrorist attacks within Israel have created widespread feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Israelis have to undergo security checks almost everywhere they go — at supermarkets, buses, schools, cinemas.
The economy is facing its worst slowdown in more than 30 years, with unemployment at close to 10 percent. True, the slowdown began before the intifada. It was arguably precipitated by last year’s Nasdaq stock crash, but the subsequent start of Palestinian violence made the situation worse.
Foreign investors began shying away from the Israeli markets, and the tourism industry has all but collapsed.
National resources are once again directed more at security than in developing a sound infrastructure.
Perhaps most menacing of all is the fragile relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority within Israel.
Riots last October in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed during clashes with police have increased feelings of alienation among Israel’s Arabs — feelings that have simmered for decades.
Just the same, despite their best attempts, the Palestinians have failed to break the spirit of Israelis.
Pro-Palestinian leftist groups in Israel have been pushed to the political margins.
Israelis gave Prime Minister Ariel Sharon an overwhelming majority in the elections held earlier this year.
While a majority of Israelis are willing to make territorial compromises if the political situation ever improves, a vast majority supports Sharon’s policy of “not negotiating under fire.”
In an indication of how much the Palestinian uprising has hardened Israeli attitudes, recent public opinion polls show that some 80 percent of Israelis oppose a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat.
But the very fact that both sides have lost so much during the past year may ultimately pave the way toward a resumption of peace talks.
Indeed, Peres and Arafat are slated to meet later this week — if things remain relatively peaceful.
True, U.S. officials had been pressing for the meeting, which Sharon had called off three times before, citing continued Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Washington believes that quelling Israeli-Palestinian violence is essential to its efforts to gain support in the Arab world for its coalition against global terrorism following the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States.
For his part, Arafat wants was to become a respected member of the coalition.
To achieve this goal, he is willing to clamp down on anti-Israel terror — at least for now.
Few Israelis delude themselves that Arafat has any interest in outlawing the terrorist groups operating from the West Bank and Gaza.
Sooner or later, many Israelis believe, Arafat will try to convince the world that there are no terrorists in the Holy Land — only freedom fighters.