Peace? Please hold

As the bloodbath rages in the Middle East, Ehud Barak calls for a "timeout" in the peace process.

Topics: Middle East,

Three weeks into a cycle of violence that has already left 135 people dead — the lion’s share of the victims Palestinians — Israel and its Arab neighbors continue to show no signs of conciliation.

Arab leaders meeting in Cairo, Egypt, this weekend for an emergency summit slammed Israel as “barbaric,” and accused the Jewish state of massacring Palestinian civilians. In view of the Arab summit’s relatively hostile outcome, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced Sunday an open-ended “timeout” from peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat then captured headlines with his defiant statement that anyone standing in the path of a Palestinian independent state with Jerusalem as its capital should simply “go to hell.” The message was apparently intended for Barak.

Playground rhetoric? Perhaps. But with a mounting death toll and the Israelis firing missiles for the first time into Beit Jala, a Palestinian village close to biblical Bethlehem, in retaliation for Palestinian gunfire directed at a Jerusalem neighborhood, and the sickening spectacle of daily funerals, the Holy Land seems to be slouching closer toward Hades than Eden.

This weekend’s verbal and gunfire exchanges showed just how difficult it will be to calm the feverish tempers on all sides and get Palestinians and Israelis talking doveishly again. The continuing clashes suggest that the hostility could last much longer than either party expected when violence first flared up on Sept. 28. They also offer substance to the voices calling for a new type of Palestinian-Israeli relationship — one based not on trust and partnership, but on maximum security and separation.

For now at least, dialogue between the two parties is on hold. A timeout is needed “because we cannot carry on the peace process as if nothing happened,” said Barak. The purpose of the pause is “to reassess the political process from the beginning in light of the events of the past weeks,” he said during a cabinet meeting Sunday. Still, Barak insisted that a timeout was different from a formal suspension of the peace process and should not be interpreted as such.

Barak’s mixed message was greeted with consternation by some of his pro-peace cabinet members. “Israel cannot operate without a clear diplomatic policy. Life does not take a timeout,” said Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. “The decision is impractical,” added Justice Minister and key negotiator Yossi Beilin. “From a diplomatic point of view, it will cause severe damage to our international standing because Israel will take on to itself the responsibility for stopping the [peace] process.”

In domestic terms, however, Barak’s “timeout” makes a lot of sense. Barak’s coalition has been in tatters since this summer, and he faces a harsh battle for his political survival when the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, reconvenes next week after a long holiday recess.

More importantly, the quasi-suspension of diplomatic talks lifts one of the major hurdles preventing right-wing leader Ariel Sharon from joining Barak in a national unity government. The 72-year-old hawk, courted by Barak since the beginning of the crisis, has refused until now to join a government intent on pursuing the peace process as outlined in Oslo seven years ago. Sharon’s possible appointment is seen as a “death kiss” to peace by Palestinians, who consider him a war criminal because of his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982. But the practical move could save Barak from early elections, which could have become a referendum on the peace process itself. The details of Sharon’s participation in Barak’s government have yet to be finalized.

Domestic considerations also influenced the language of the resolutions adopted at the Arab summit this weekend, as states sought to placate the bellicose mood on the streets while protecting their national interests. The Arab leaders blasted Israel for the bloodshed; called for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal to investigate Israel’s use of force in handling the riots; and announced the creation of two funds worth $1 billion to help the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the current bloodshed and preserve “the Arab and Islamic character” of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

But the summit stopped short of adopting any concrete measures against Israel. Tunisia announced it would cut off its low-level relations with Israel. Economic cooperation and political exchanges between neighboring Middle East nations and Israel — implemented following the 1991 Madrid peace conference — were also halted. However, Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, three Arab countries which have signed peace treaties with Israel in the past, were not asked to sever their diplomatic ties. Indeed, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak reaffirmed his commitment to peace with Israel, and emphasized that the most important thing was to “reestablish stability and calm in the region.”

The summit’s moderate outcome was a letdown for Palestinians who had hoped that Arab solidarity would help tip the conflict in their favor. But analysts here say the measured tone of the summit was entirely predictable.

“They may pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, but the Arabs have never gone to war for the Palestinians,” noted Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

The situation is politically difficult for Egypt and Jordan, whose leaders are caught between the outrage of people on the streets — who demand war or, at least, practical steps to rescue their Palestinian brethren — and the strategic and economic ties their countries share with the United States and Israel, its regional protigi. In Jordan, a country on the verge of signing a free-trade agreement with the United States, that balancing act is particularly crucial because 60 percent of the kingdom’s population is Palestinian. “Jordan wants to localize the conflict before it destabilizes the Hashemite dynasty,” said Inbar.

“Where are the Arabs? Where are the millions?” asks a popular intifada song broadcast night and day on Palestinian radio, but the call for jihad — or holy war — let out by demonstrators around the Arab world and countries like Iraq and Libya will probably go unanswered. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the absence of full-fledged war does not guarantee peace either. The most likely scenario is a simmering of the present violence, with peaks of bloodshed and disasters, but no clear-cut military resolution.

In this context of neither war nor peace, both sides are considering drastic unilateral actions that would produce results without requiring diplomatic compromises. Arafat threatens to declare an independent Palestinian state on Nov. 15 and fight to establish sovereignty over every inch of Arab territory occupied by Israel since the Six Day War of 1967. At the same time, Barak has ordered top officials to consider the practical impact of “unilateral separation,” an often-discussed plan designed to ensure maximum security for Israelis by removing Palestinians from their reach and sight.

Already in 1992, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s election slogan was to “Get Gaza out of Tel Aviv.” Since then, the mostly Palestinian-ruled and miserable Gaza Strip has indeed been separated from the cosmopolitan riches of Tel Aviv. Until the current clashes, however, more than 120,000 Palestinian workers commuted to day jobs in Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. Now Israelis are talking about entirely “sealing off” the Palestinian territories, to prevent terrorists from entering Jewish cities.

On the face of it, abruptly ending the 33-year-old Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza sounds like a good idea, since that occupation is the main object of Palestinian grievances. But Israel would not withdraw from areas it believes are key to its security and religious identity like the Jordan valley and the Old City of Jerusalem. And erecting watertight borders would effectively place a stranglehold on the Palestinian economy

Many analysts believe full separation is not really an option. The unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon last May, “cannot be repeated in the Palestinian territories,” wrote Zvi Barel in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz. Unlike the West Bank and Gaza where 200,000 Israeli settlers now live, Lebanon was “devoid of settlements and not economically dependent on Israel. Israel and the Palestinians have to live in a state of separated coexistence, a situation that can only exist with a peace agreement.”

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