After almost three years of bloodshed and conflict, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are behaving in recent days as if they had returned to their pre-intifada relationship. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) travels the short distance every week from his Ramallah office to Jerusalem, to see his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon. Ministers from both sides meet regularly to discuss progress and cooperation. Israeli and Palestinian officers shake hands in front of the cameras, and the Israeli military praises the Palestinian security forces. Discussions on releasing Palestinian prisoners bear an almost identical resemblance to similar exchanges made during the previous decade, in the halcyon days of the now-defunct Oslo peace process. It all seems so natural, as if the fighting was just a bad dream.
Most Israelis, fatigued and wary from the constant scourge of war and Palestinian suicide bombings, feel one thing above all else: relief. Security has strikingly improved after the Palestinian declaration of a temporary cease-fire ("hudna"), on June 30. The Tel Aviv stock market soared, and the Israeli shekel gained back some of the value it had lost. European and Arab governments, which had been highly critical of Sharon's government in the previous two years, signaled a new openness toward Israel. Next week, Sharon will travel to Britain and Norway, breaking a de facto international isolation. How symbolic: In his first Scandinavian trip, Sharon is going to Oslo, a decade after the breakthrough agreement that he opposed so fiercely.
The current effort to stop the violence, and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations, appears to have a better chance of success than all attempts made since the current intifada broke out in late September 2000. "With every new day without a bombing, the cease-fire takes deeper hold, and resuming the previous situation becomes more difficult," said an Israeli official.
Still, skepticism is always sensible in the Middle East, and even more so given the fragility of the current situation. That fragility was underscored on Monday night, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in an Israeli village, killing a 63-year-old woman. It was the first such attack since militant Palestinian factions agreed to a hudna, or temporary truce, 10 days ago, and led a spokesman for Sharon to repeat his statement that the hudna was worthless. The next day, Abu Mazen called off a scheduled meeting with Sharon to protest the Israeli leader's refusal to release Palestinian prisoners who belong to the hard-line groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Concern also grew about Abu Mazen's perceived weakness. Tuesday night the Palestinian leader resigned from the central committee of the mainstream Palestinian group Fatah and threatened to step down as premier following a bitterly contentious session in which harder-line Fatah members criticized him for his approach to negotiations with the Israelis. The Fatah committee refused to accept his resignation. A U.S. State Department spokesman immediately affirmed that the U.S. stood behind Abu Mazen. But earlier, the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, called Abu Mazen a "relatively weak man" who tends to "run away from problems" and emphasized that the primary American goal had been to sideline Arafat, not empower Abu Mazen. As the Fatah committee clash shows, however, the Palestinian leader's former mentor and current arch rival, Yasser Arafat, still wields considerable power.
At a deeper level, both sides remain highly suspicious of each other, and have to contend with powerful domestic opponents to the renewed political process. The tough decisions -- for the Israelis, on settlements; for the Palestinians, on dealing with rejectionist groups -- have yet to be taken. Israel has still to show its willingness and ability to curb its settlements enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza. The same is true for the new Palestinian leaders as they confront the need to disarm refuseniks from groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which advocate Israel's destruction and want to maintain their terrorist capabilities.
The Israeli side, however, has pledged to keep the process going despite the hurdles, and officials in Jerusalem said they understood Abu Mazen's problems. The American mediators are keeping steady pressure on both sides to be more generous and move forward, instead of just waiting for each other.
Setbacks notwithstanding, the visible change in the atmosphere cannot be ignored. When Sharon invited Abu Mazen for a first-ever televised visit by a Palestinian leader to his office in Jerusalem, last Tuesday, he went further than his predecessors, who have always refrained from bringing Arafat, their former peace interlocutor, to the contested holy city. And though no flags were raised on the occasion, Abu Mazen paid his respect to the symbol of Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem. On Monday, Israeli authorities reported that the number of "hot" terrorist warnings fell sharply, from 60-70 to 29. The Palestinian government ended anti-Israeli broadcasts on its TV channel, and went as far as to erase hate graffiti.
What caused this sea change? Undoubtedly, it was the combination of both warring sides' fatigue and the American pressure on their leaders. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have managed to break their rival's motivation or capability to keep fighting, but the stalemate has taken its toll, with over 2,000 Palestinians and more than 800 Israelis killed, thousands more wounded, and shattered economies and hopes.
Once again in the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, American involvement has been crucial in beginning to fill the chasm of mutual mistrust. The modest but ongoing successes of the past few weeks -- both sides' acceptance of the "road map" (the American-led, internationally sponsored plan to end the conflict and form a Palestinian state); Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas in Gaza and Bethlehem; Palestinian acceptance of security responsibility in these areas and pledges to stop terrorism; Israel's dismantling of several settlement "unauthorized outposts" in the West Bank; and the resumed political- and working-level dialogue -- have all shown that the Bush administration has no magic peacemaking formula beyond the old, well-tested diplomatic recipe of high-level presence, constant prodding of the adversaries-turned-partners, and persuasive presidential involvement. Apparently, there is no real way to resolve a rooted conflict by remote control.
One can argue that President George W. Bush and his aides had waited patiently until the dueling sides were so beaten down that they were "ripe" to accept a U.S.-brokered deal. According to this viewpoint, the year that passed following Bush's major policy speech of June 24, 2002, in which he laid out his "two-state vision" for ending the conflict, was not wasted, but rather skillfully used to lay the groundwork for future involvement. During that impasse, which lasted until Bush's Mideast trip in early June this year, Arafat was pushed aside, Abu Mazen assumed his new leadership position, and the road map was finalized as the consensual basis for a renewed peacemaking effort. These measures made the sudden movement of the recent weeks possible.
The cease-fire negotiations were held in two parallel, seemingly disconnected channels. Abu Mazen worked out the hudna deal with the different Palestinian factions, with the assistance of Egypt and the Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is being held for trial by Israel as a terrorist leader. Meanwhile the Palestinian security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, discussed the transfer of responsibility in Gaza and Bethlehem with Israeli security officials. The deal was reached, with American help, on June 27, merely 24 hours before National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice arrived for her first working visit to Israel and the P.A. No document was signed; officials from both sides simply nodded in agreement to a text read by the American envoy John Wolf, who is monitoring the road map implementation.
Rice was present for the Gaza and Bethlehem achievement, which had escaped Secretary of State Colin Powell a week before. The Palestinians announced their hudna when she was still in Jerusalem. Contrary to the media cliché, which depicts Powell as being tougher toward Israel and Sharon, and Rice and the White House as patsies of the pro-Israel American Jewish lobby, the diplomatic reality is all but the opposite. The soft-spoken Powell may be tough in off-the-record deliberations, but he avoids confronting Sharon and other Israeli officials. His recent visits in Jerusalem were an example of walking over a diplomatic minefield and remaining intact. Rice, on the other hand, never hesitates to speak her mind bluntly, sometimes forgoing protocol. During her visit to Jerusalem, Rice succeeded in conveying the message that Abu Mazen, Dahlan and Palestinian finance minister Salem Fayyad are currently the administration's Mideast darlings, and Israel should behave accordingly.
Rice traveled to the region to deliver a double message. She told the Palestinians they must uproot terrorism if they want to achieve statehood, and she told the Israelis they must support Abu Mazen's efforts, and refrain from military actions and reprisals, unless the Palestinians fail to intercept a terrorist bombing in progress (known as "ticking bomb" in the conflict's jargon). Upon her arrival, she met Abu Mazen in Jericho, and he stressed another issue, Israel's ongoing construction of a security (or so-called separation) fence in the West Bank. Abu Mazen convinced Rice that the current plan to erect the wall deep inside the occupied territory, to defend Israeli settlement blocks, would jeopardize his political stance and prejudge the final status outcome. The next day, Rice raised the issue with Sharon, expressed her reservations about the project, and asked him to reconsider the fence's delineation. Sharon responded by saying that he agreed with her but that the fence enjoyed wide support with the Israeli public and was crucial for Israel's security, so he would proceed with it despite Washington's objections.
In truth, Sharon has never been enthusiastic about the fence, making it clear that its construction would not set the final borders of Israel. (The fence closely follows the pre-1967 "Green Line"; a border that followed the fence would leave the settlements outside of Israel.) Moreover, he doubted that the wall would be effective in blocking terror attacks. Nevertheless, public outcry forced him to authorize it after a wave of suicide attacks from the West Bank, and Israelis pointed out that no bombers have succeeded in striking from the fenced-in Gaza Strip. Some of Sharon's political opponents, like his predecessor Ehud Barak, advocate the fence not only for its security value, but also as a unilateral substitute for negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, in the absence of a "sincere partner." A few months ago, Sharon had quietly frozen the construction of the project's next stage, which would include the disputed settlements line. But the administration used the Rice criticism over the fence to prove to its Arab and European allies that "we can pressure Sharon." In fact, said an Israeli diplomat, "Sharon has never done anything against his will."
But even the tough prime minister and his underlings have changed their public position in recent days. At first, the Palestinian announcement of a cease-fire was met with Israeli rejection and skepticism. Israeli officials warned that it was a Palestinian ruse that would enable them to rebuild their terrorist capabilities. Abu Mazen and Dahlan had firmly rejected Israel's demand for a forceful showdown with Hamas, pledging instead to dismantle the organization through other, more peaceful means. A senior Israeli defense official, who played a key part in the negotiations over the Gaza hand-over, was not enthusiastic about the outcome and expressed skepticism about the Palestinian promise, but told me that Israel had to accept the terms under American prodding, and in order to please the peace-starved Israeli public.
A few days later, however, this attitude markedly changed. The military chief of staff, Gen. Moshe ("Bogy") Ya'alon, called a press briefing last Wednesday, and pledged to support "calming the fighting and entering a political process." Ya'alon -- who had once declared that Israel should "burn in the Palestinians' conscience" the recognition that terrorism never pays -- now said that the cease-fire and the positive attitude of Abu Mazen's government could be seen as marking the end of the "violent round that started in September 2000." Asked if the cease-fire should be seen as an Israeli victory, the chief of staff did not hesitate. "Definitely," he responded. Later he took credit for the achievement, saying that Israel's recent assassinations of Hamas leaders led them to accept the cease-fire. Next week, the chief of staff will travel to Washington.
These triumphalist remarks prompted criticism from Ya'alon's immediate predecessor, who became his political master and bureaucratic rival, defense minister Shaul Mofaz. But nevertheless, it reflects the prevailing thought in Israeli government circles. "Truly, it was not a devastating victory. But we succeeded in replacing their leadership, at least by 80 percent (since Arafat is still around), and we forced them to sit down and discuss security before anything else. This was our platform, and we fulfilled it completely. If this is not a victory, I wonder what is," a senior Israeli official told me, while at the same time questioning how wise it was to boast about it at this point in time.
The celebrations were short, however. Soon enough, the Palestinians advanced one of the most contentious issues to the top of their agenda: their demand that Israel release hundreds of convicted prisoners as part of the cease-fire. Currently, Israel holds more than 6,000 Palestinians behind bars (the exact number is disputed). For the Palestinians, they are freedom fighters, whose families put enormous pressure on the leadership to get their loved ones back. For the Israelis, many of the prisoners are coldblooded, despised murderers; for each prisoner, there is at least one ruined Israeli family, whose loved one was slaughtered in a terrorist attack.
The prisoner issue was hotly debated throughout the Oslo years. Israel released prisoners from Fatah, Arafat's and Abu Mazen's mainstream faction, but refused to set free those with "blood on their hands" who were involved in killing or severely wounding Jewish Israelis. But these men are the most important assets for Abu Mazen's government, and the Palestinian premier asked Sharon to release more than 400 veteran prisoners. Most of them are serving life sentences for deadly attacks carried out in the 1970s and 1980s.
The road map places Israel under no obligation to release prisoners. But Israeli intelligence assessments concur with Abu Mazen's claim that releasing the prisoners will boost his government's standing with the Palestinian public, a desirable goal for Israelis and Americans alike. Knowing very well the political volatility of this symbolic issue, Sharon decided to handle it personally, covering his rear with a professional recommendation by the head of Israel's state security service (Shin Bet), Avi Dichter. The security chief proposed releasing about 350 Palestinians, none with "blood on their hands," none members of the radical groups, and none expected to return to practice terrorism. These criteria exclude the veterans, Abu Mazen's most coveted prisoners, who almost entirely fall into the "blood on their hands" category, although Sharon had initially expressed some openness to let some of the older ones go.
On Sunday, Sharon brought the matter to his cabinet, where he met with fierce opposition from the right wing, and had to make some compromises to facilitate the plan's approval. In fact, the debate wasn't bad for Sharon, who can use it now to show Abu Mazen and the Americans how hard it is for him to make concessions on this issue. The Palestinians, as expected, demanded more generosity from Israel. As Israeli intelligence predicted long ago, the prisoner issue will dominate the political debate and remain fiercely disputed. The United States supports the Palestinian demand to release more prisoners.
Looking ahead, what are the prospects for peace? In the medium term, four possible obstacles can be identified: Palestinian disappointment over the slow pace of Israeli steps such as withdrawal from more occupied areas, releasing prisoners and easing travel and economic restrictions; Israeli disappointment over Abu Mazen's political weakness and his mishandling of the terrorist groups; American disappearance from the scene, especially given the growing number of body bags from Iraq; and last, but not least, a sudden downturn in Sharon's high political standing and popularity, if ongoing criminal investigations against him and his sons for mysterious money trafficking would eventually gain momentum. Given Sharon's key role in implementing the road map, his downfall may destroy the plan, especially since his expected successor is the hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu. But these speculations are far-fetched; Israeli experience has shown that criminal proceedings against politicians and other public officials are seldom concluded with indictments and convictions. In any case, Sharon is bound to remain powerful during the coming crucial months.