Hezbollah Shadow Looms Over Palestinian Talks

  • Share
  • Read Later
Hezbollah may have become more of a problem for Yasser Arafat than it is for Ehud Barak. With the Iran-backed guerrilla army playing responsible guardian of border stability in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, Barak can focus his attention and political momentum on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But with the back-channel negotiations between emissaries of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders reportedly set to resume Wednesday or Thursday at an undisclosed location, Arafat is having to contend with the inspiration provided by Hezbollah's example to the growing constituency among Palestinians that favors violence and militant pressure over endless talks as a means of dealing with the Israelis.

Arafat himself has conceded to Israeli leaders that the example of the Lebanese guerrillas who, over two decades, systematically ground down Israel's will to maintain its occupation of a section of their country, is making it more difficult for him to compromise on such key questions as the amount of territory Israel hands over, the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem and the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees Israel has refused to allow to return to their original homes inside the Jewish state. "The propaganda victory by Hezbollah certainly reduces Arafat's maneuverability, but it's a risky thing for him to be saying," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "Saying it makes it harder for the Palestinians to settle for anything less than 100 percent of the West Bank may be designed to squeeze more concessions out of Israel, but they're also heard by his own people. So he's creating unrealistic expectations of what his negotiations are going to achieve."

Of course, it's not as if the West Bank Palestinians have the capacity to mimic Hezbollah's guerrilla struggle, which succeeded in large part because it was allowed by Syria. But they do have their stones and gasoline bombs, which could still make life difficult for Israel. "The Palestinians don't need Hezbollah to show them that violence pays," says Beyer. "It was the intifada uprising that brought about the Oslo accords, and it was the 1996 mini-war between the security forces of both sides that forced Netanyahu, who'd previously refused to even talk to Arafat, to seek a meeting and negotiate the Hebron accord. The Palestinians know it can work to put pressure on Israel." What may worry Arafat, though, is that they may discover it can work to put pressure on him, too.