Waiting desperately for a plan

In the aftermath of new Middle East violence, tensions have risen and hopes have all but collapsed. Now both Israelis and Palestinians are looking to Washington for answers.

Published June 21, 2002 11:19PM (EDT)

Twenty-six Israeli civilians have died here in suicide attacks since Tuesday, and the scenes of blackened, bloodied and peeled-open buses and bus stops have led to a sense of hopelessness, again.

Shaul Mofaz, chief of staff to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has now admitted that his massive "Defensive Shield" campaign in the West Bank in April and May has not succeeded in changing the determination of Palestinians to carry out such attacks. Yet the army and the government are undertaking another round of incursions, including possibly the more permanent reoccupation of Palestinian areas. Even as the new campaign was underway, Palestinian gunmen attacked a Jewish settlement near Nablus on Thursday night and killed five people, including a mother and her three children.

And on the Palestinian side, an influential coalition of intellectuals and political leaders called the suicide bombings counterproductive and urged the attackers to stop, even as militant leaders said flatly that the campaign would go on.

Responding to the government's announcement that it will reoccupy more Palestinian territory after every attack and hold it "as long as the terror continues," a rare consensus has emerged among some Israeli and Palestinian analysts: Sharon's response is driven by emotions here, or by an attempt to placate public opinion, but it is not a realistic attempt to break the cycle of violence.

Sharon certainly seemed shocked and appalled when he visited the scene of Tuesday's bus bombing in which 19 people died. It was a rare appearance, and on Thursday he said at the 34th Zionist Congress underway here that such attacks represent the worst moments in his life. "Since the age of 17, I have stood in the service of the Jewish people," he told the delegates. "I have passed the most terrible fields of destruction, I have beheld the scenes of the terrors of war, I have held the hand of comrades bleeding to death, I have closed the eyes of the fallen -- and I have never seen anything so horrific as what I saw on Tuesday in Jerusalem, the horror of crushed bodies, dismembered and wallowing in blood -- the horror of victims whose despicable murderer tried to rob them not only of their lives, but also of their dignity."

Sharon's emotions appear sincere, but politically, he appears to be appealing to President George W. Bush, who is still expected to present as early as Friday a new plan for Middle East peace that includes the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The latest attacks have forced the administration to postpone the presentation, and Sharon clearly is trying to exert last-minute influence over the plan.

"This is just one more wave in a campaign that has continued more than 120 years," he said in his speech. "The difference is the fact that this time, behind the terror and murder activities, stands a terrorist Palestinian authority, by an axis of global terror, Teheran-Damascus-bin Laden."

The Palestinians, also worried about the impact of the bombings on emerging U.S. policy, have over the last couple of days started to come out more strongly against the attacks. Yasser Arafat on Thursday issued a statement in which he called for an end to the bombings. "I have to speak to you frankly about the necessity to completely stop these attacks, which have been repeatedly condemned by the Palestinian leadership and against which we have taken firm decisions to preserve the high national interest," according to the statement. The "high national interest" in this instance referred to the threat of reoccupation by the Israelis, but undoubtedly also includes the fears that the Bush plan will have a negative impact on the Palestinian cause.

An initial group of 55 Palestinian intellectuals and politicians on Wednesday took out a U.S.-sponsored ad in the Arabic language Al-Quds daily which appears in East Jerusalem, declaring that "these attacks do not achieve progress toward achieving our ... freedom and independence." The signatories, including Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian representative in Jerusalem, and Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, said that the bombings "give this aggressive government headed by Sharon justification to pursue its harsh and aggressive war against our people and against our cities and villages."

Palestinian political opinion analyst Nabil Kokali from Bethlehem said that the signatories are well-respected in Palestinian society and that people would listen to them. Already, he said, support for attacks on civilians in Israel is on the wane. The latest polls show that support stands at 54 percent, down from over 80 percent last August. "We know from before the intifada that there is hardcore support of some 20 per cent of the population," said Kokali.

The fundamentalist Hamas movement has already rejected the appeals to stop the actions, "martyrdom operations" as the Islamic movement calls them. On the telephone from Gaza, senior Hamas spokesman Abdel-Aziz Rantisi said the resistance would go on as long as the Israeli occupation continues. "We have always known that there are some individuals among the Palestinian people who oppose any kind of military action against the occupation," Rantisi said. "It's those people who have signed the petition."

But he dismissed the petitioners' charge that his group's tactics are not effective either, and suggested that they should be patient. "We tried to negotiate for 10 years with the Israelis, without result," he said. "We have been resisting now again for two years, so how can those people who are in favor of negotiations say that we failed?" Contrary to the Palestinian Authority leadership and the petitioners, Rantisi was not fazed at all by the prospect of an Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian territory. "If they reoccupy, their soldiers only become easier targets for us," he said. Palestinians "are willing to pay the price for resistance."

After Tuesday's attack, Israeli forces moved into Jenin and Qalqilya and on Thursday they invaded Tulkarem and Bethlehem, and Beitunya, near Ramallah. It is unclear yet whether the troops will stay in the city centers and if so for how long. The army on Thursday withdrew once again from most of Qalqilya but only after one Palestinian woman and two soldiers were killed. During the Israeli sweeps, thousands of Palestinians are arrested, usually only for the duration of an interrogation by the security services; but hundreds were kept prisoner after that, as well. The security forces this week also picked up close to 2,000 Palestinians who were inside Israel without proper permits. Most of them were sent back to the West Bank.

In an ominous sign of possible military action to come, the army issued what it said was a limited number of emergency call-ups to reservists. At the time of the Defensive Shield operation, more than 30,000 reservists were called up and Israel occupied most of the West Bank cities for several weeks. Nabil Kokali in Bethlehem said that the people were not as well prepared as during previous incursions and he was worried about the food situation in his own home.

"To stop suicide attacks, Israel will have to help," he said. "It's a two-way street. These actions don't help. The Palestinians feel they have nothing to lose. They didn't support the attacks when they did feel they had something to lose. I think Sharon is not thinking, he is doing this for his own political reasons."

Israeli strategic analyst Gerald Steinberg from Bar-Ilan University also is skeptical of the new reoccupation campaign. "It's supposed to involve a sort of punishment for the Palestinians each time an attack occurs, to make them think," he said. "But I don't see why it would work any better than previous schemes. It is most likely to have sprung from a sense of frustration in the Israeli government." He believes only a combination of military and political initiatives can put an end to the situation.

Steinberg is in favor of the fence the Israelis have started building around the West Bank in an effort to check Palestinian attackers, and he says it must be complemented by short-term military incursions in Palestinian areas. The final military component, says Steinberg, should be the isolation of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a renewed and more stringent siege of the Palestinian leader's headquarters. "Everybody knows that this will not be solved while Arafat is in charge," said Steinberg. "At the very least he creates the atmosphere in which these attacks take place." The final element is a political plan, he says, which can be proposed by President Bush but which can succeed "only ... once Arafat is out of the picture."

The Bush administration is unlikely to endorse that view, at least openly, and even less likely to wait for that before Bush presents his plan. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Thursday that the president is waiting to see what the impact is of the call by Arafat to cease the attacks. He said Bush is looking for more than mere "rhetorical" responses. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also made clear that Bush was waiting for the right opportunity to present his views. The president "is very committed to wanting to move forward and we want everybody to work to make an environment possible where whatever the president says can actually work," he said. His boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, also on Thursday phoned Middle Eastern foreign ministers to ask them to put pressure on Arafat to stop the attacks.

Sharon received a call from Bush himself, at least in part to consult on the upcoming U.S. plan. "Most of the conversation was about condolence and sympathy for what Israel is going through," said Fleischer. Bush reassured Sharon that his plan would not undermine Israel's security, the spokesman said, and Bush "reiterated his determination to push for peace and to find a way to provide more security for Israel and hope for the Palestinian people."

As for the substance of Bush's peace plan, it is expected to be a cautious attempt to offer both sides just enough to keep some semblance of the "peace process" going, without committing the U.S. to any decisive course of action. Bush is expected to announce his support for a future Palestinian state, but make that support conditional on the Palestinians meeting a number of strict requirements -- which led some observers to doubt that the Palestinians will accept the plan. Fearful of domestic political fallout, Bush is not expected to confront Sharon by addressing contentious issues such as the continued existence of Israeli settlements. Few hold out much hope that the plan will achieve anything.

Several U.S. congressmen have condemned the suicide attacks and urged the president to take firm action. And some influential voices in the U.S. have called for the speech to be cancelled completely. Among them is former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who is currently at the Brookings Institution. "In the context of the current round of terrorist bombings, to talk at all about creating a Palestinian state in the immediate future would be, as Congress is now reminding the president, a reward for terrorism," Indyk said. Another attack could spell the end of the initiative, he said, and therefore, "the best thing to do is not to give the speech, at least not in the form that it appears to be taking, and not now."

In Israel, though, there is a renewed call for something to change after the recent carnage. Sharon seems to be in tune with the emotional side of the Israeli public and also may be adept at influencing Washington, but both the left and the right are starting once again to voice the criticism that was partly silenced by the Defensive Shield operation. Both sides complain that Sharon has no answer to the violence.

On the left, his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer of the Labor Party, is opposing the reoccupation of Palestinian lands. He won a signal victory in his own party on Thursday night for his program, which includes offering to resume talks with the Palestinians based on the 2000 proposals offered by then-President Clinton that included land-for-peace provisions.

"We need a political program to provide a moral basis for our military actions against terrorism," said Ben-Eliezer. He also opposes the notion of reoccupying Palestinian territories for more than "two or three weeks." Right-wing ministers, though, are pressing for total reoccupation and a resumption of full Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. One drawback to this plan may be that, according to recent calculations, setting up a new mechanism to deal with the Palestinian population will cost at least $600 million a year, a price the Israeli economy can ill afford.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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