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Internal Israeli, Palestinian Constraints Dim Prospects for a Meaningful Cease-fire

March 20, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In early March, as Israeli tanks rumbled into Palestinian refugee camps and cities, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held a secret meeting with Mohammed Rashid, one of Yasser Arafat’s closest confidants.

Sharon was doing what he said he never would: talking political solutions under fire.

Rashid was doing what many Palestinians say he never should have: listening to the Israeli prime minister’s proposals as the Israel Defense Force tightened its hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the very fact that the two men got together under those circumstances suggests that after 18 brutal months of confrontation, the two sides may at last be ready to do business.

After pounding each other for a year and a half, both sides are tired and ready to move on.

But can they?

The reason Sharon called the meeting was to dispel Palestinian allegations that he has no peace plan. He wanted to convince the Palestinian leadership through Rashid that there is a political light at the end of the tunnel and that therefore it would be worth their while to call off their armed intifada.

But what he put on the table did not go nearly far enough for the Palestinians.

He proposed a 7-year-long interim agreement, with Israel holding on to Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Although the Palestinians would get a mini-state, the plan would leave Israel in control of two buffer zones, one along the 1967 borders and a second along the Jordan River to the East.

The Palestinians would have territorial contiguity in the rest of the West Bank, but their mini-state would be surrounded by Israeli-held territory on all sides.

Thank you, said Rashid. But no thank you.

The meeting, which took place two weeks before U.S. envoy General Anthony Zinni arrived on the scene determined to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, gives a good idea of his chances of success.

The fact that the meeting took place suggests Zinni may well get a cease-fire; the political chasm it revealed suggests that it won’t last.

And that is not the only reason why a cease-fire, if achieved, may not hold. The American mediators, the Palestinians and the Israelis all face virtually insurmountable problems.

For the Americans it’s a question of getting an extremely delicate carrot and stick balancing act right. The margin for error is tiny.

For example, to get the Palestinians to join a political process, the Americans need to assure them that there are political gains to be had. So President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell speak openly and often about a vision of Palestine and Israel coexisting in peace and security.

They need to show “even-handedness,” so they publicly pressure Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory.

The message to the Palestinians is supposed to be that moderation will be rewarded, and that they can get from the Americans what they cannot achieve through violence.

But when the balance is just slightly off, the message the Palestinians actually get is that violence pays, that the more they use terror, the greater the price the Americans are prepared to pay to get them to stop.

For the Palestinians, just carrying out the first bits of the Tenet-Mitchell formula, which is supposed to lead to a renewal of peace talks, is anathema.

According to Tenet-Mitchell — named for CIA Director George Tenet and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell — immediately after a cease-fire en route to political dialogue, the Palestinians must arrest wanted men, decommission weapons and stop incitement.

Palestinian leaders are already saying openly that in the present climate they may not be able to come up with the goods. Even Jibril Rajoub, the powerful head of preventive security on the West Bank, and one of the Palestinian leaders most outspokenly in favor of accommodation with Israel, declared that after the recent Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory, no Palestinian leader could order arrests or collect weapons.

Even if Arafat wanted to make a cease-fire stick, a debatable proposition to say the least, it is not clear whether he still has the clout on the ground to restrain the armed men.

Never mind the rejectionist organizations, the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who will continue to try to wage terror no matter what — and especially if there seems to be progress toward a peaceful solution. But Arafat’s own Fatah group, the Tanzim, has an agenda of its own.

These young men, who grew up under occupation, are involved in a power struggle with the older generation Arafat brought with him from Tunis, when he returned to the Palestinian areas as part of the Oslo agreement in 1994.

The men from Tunis are associated with Oslo, and Tanzim leaders like Marwan Barghouti challenge them by discrediting Oslo.

The violence they wage against Israel is a means of building their power base on the Palestinian street and is part of an unstated struggle for succession. What they do if Arafat signs onto a cease-fire will be crucial.

For Sharon, the problems are equally complex.

The more the forces under Arafat, like the Tanzim, are involved in terror, the more Sharon strikes at Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, rendering it less able to control those forces, especially Tanzim.

Ostensibly the defection of the far-right National Unity — Israel, Our Home alliance from his government should give Sharon more freedom of maneuver vis a vis the Palestinians and open up new diplomatic avenues.

But in practice, he will still have them and the right wing of his own Likud breathing down his neck and calling any political concessions he makes to the Palestinians a sellout.

Moreover, the most substantial diplomatic move made by the Sharon government is one that, ironically, Sharon does not approve of.

In a written but as-yet unsigned deal, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Abu Alaa, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, see early Palestinian statehood as the “engine” that will drive the whole process forward.

Peres believes that once the Palestinians get statehood they will feel that the peace process is moving in a meaningful direction that violence could subvert. Abu Alaa, whose real name is Ahmed Karia, believes that once achieved, the mini-state will set off a dynamic leading inevitably to full statehood and the achievement of other Palestinian national aspirations.

But others on both sides are less convinced.

Sharon argues that early statehood could be seen as reward for violence and encourage more. And some Palestinian leaders fear that accepting a mini-state on part of the West Bank and Gaza could take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda and leave them with nothing more.

So how to square the circle — or circles?

How convince Palestinians they have everything to gain by talking and nothing by shooting? How convince Israelis that once Palestinian national aspirations are achieved, the shooting will stop?

The situation is too complex and charged for the parties to resolve alone and it is extremely difficult for third parties to push the right buttons.

But without an active, concerned and determined third party, like the Americans, to win confidence, bridge gaps and underwrite agreements, nothing positive will be achieved.

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