The quiet before the next storm

Is the biggest threat to the peace process, and to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now from his own people?

Published April 11, 2005 6:50PM (EDT)

In the months since Yasser Arafat's death the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been relatively quiet, particularly since the February peace summit, though violence in the Gaza Strip over the weekend threatened to shatter the calm.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon paid President Bush a visit at the Crawford ranch in Texas today to shore up support for his controversial plan to pull out of the Gaza strip, which includes dismantling all 21 Jewish settlements there. Sharon also plans to remove four settlements in the northern West Bank.

Sharon and Bush did a familiar verbal tango over the incendiary issue of the greater West Bank, with Bush repeating warnings to Sharon not to "contravene" the road map for peace, and Sharon reiterating his carefully worded "commitment" to "remove unauthorized outposts."

The calm of the post-Arafat period has looked encouraging in some ways, but in a region where the bloody past has proved prologue many times over, it's tough to let hopes get too high. Renewed violence on Saturday threatened to blow them apart: Israeli soldiers shot dead three Palestinian teenagers and wounded another in a buffer zone along the Gaza border. The circumstances of the shootings are a matter of dispute, as well as an ongoing investigation by the Israeli military. Palestinians responded with dozens of mortar attacks on Israeli settlements in Gaza, where nobody was reported injured.

But the biggest threat now to the delicate peace process may be from militant right-wing Jews, who threatened to march in protest Sunday and take over the Al Aqsa mosque at the holy site in Jerusalem known as Haram al-Sharif to Arabs, and as the Temple Mount to Jews. The Israeli government moved to stop the militants, a new group known as Rehava, with thousands of police officers. Palestinian militants themselves demonstrated over the weekend in Gaza and the West Bank, declaring that any invasion of the area around Al Aqsa would be regarded as "an act of war."

The current political backdrop for Sharon, who helped provoke the second Intifada himself with a visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, is looking remarkably different these days. He recognizes the danger to the peace process at hand -- including from his own people. Speaking today of the current mood in Israel, he said, "The tension here, the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war. All my life I was defending life of Jews. Now for the first time, steps I'm taking to protect me from Jews."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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