"These are the first days"

The cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is a positive sign, but the real challenge now is to maintain it.

By Julian Borger
Published February 8, 2005 5:58PM (EST)

Condoleezza Rice could not have hoped for a better start to her new job as secretary of state. Barely had she arrived in the Middle East when peace appeared to break out. The prospect of a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, announced in separate statements Tuesday by Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, also looks like a vindication for the Bush administration's insistence that peace would spring naturally from Palestinian reform and the defeat of alleged state sponsors of terrorism, like Iraq.

Many analysts in Washington, however, suggested Monday that President Bush and Rice may have been the beneficiaries of lucky timing. Saddam Hussein gave money to the family of Palestinian suicide bombers, but there is no sign that his fall curtailed the militants' willingness to fight.

Meanwhile, the pivotal event of recent months was the death of Yasser Arafat, opening the door to Palestinian elections and giving Abbas a mandate to make a fresh push for peace with the Israelis.

Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who now advises the Palestinian Authority from Washington, said: "The Bush administration is hitching a ride on something the Palestinians have done for themselves. The impetus for democracy came from the Palestinians, and I think it would have taken place regardless of the Bush administration." He added: "There is a new agenda, a new style of leadership since Arafat's death. When I was in Ramallah three weeks ago, I asked Abu Mazen [Abbas] what his priority was. He said an end of violence, and he was confident he could get a cease-fire within a month."

Achieving a Palestinian ceasefire, then, may be the easy part in Rice's job. The same is true for an Israeli suspension of military operations in Palestinian territories. The difficult part, observers say, will be making the cease-fire stick, and that in turn will depend on how far the Bush administration can pressure the Sharon government to withdraw from the West Bank and stop its settlement building.

Such goals are still a long way off, said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We do know the early signs from all three sides are positive. [That Condoleezza] Rice has shown firmness with all three sides is a positive thing. But these are the first days. Sharon and Abu Mazen have very, very fragile political bases. Let's not look for big things yet."

Since entering the White House, Bush has been berated by European and Arab critics for exerting pressure on the Palestinian side to curb violence by militant groups, while the Israelis continued to expand Jewish settlements on occupied territory and conduct heavy-handed policing actions.

Rice appeared to signal an intention to extract some concessions from the Sharon government when she urged "hard decisions" to help build a democratic Palestine. But Abington is doubtful the U.S. administration is ready to back up the rhetoric with real pressure. "I see settlement activity is proceeding at a very rapid pace. They are encircling East Jerusalem with settlements and roads only settlers can use." Indeed, a U.S. official in Ramallah said Monday that the Bush administration did not wish to take any action that might upset Sharon's "disengagement plan" to pull Jewish settlers and most Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank.

Abbas, however, is also in a tenuous position that may quickly become untenable without tangible benefits for ordinary Palestinians. Rice's announcement of a quick $40 million aid package, diverted from a long-term desalination project, may alleviate that pressure temporarily. But the Palestinian leader will also have to show progress in restoring land to Palestinian hands on the West Bank or he will have great difficulty keeping Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades committed to the cease-fire. Abington predicts that will not last long.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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