Not Now, Madeleine — We're Still Fighting

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Even if they do manage to stop the violence — and right now that's a big "if" — Israeli and Palestinian leaders will find themselves with a long journey back toward that elusive peace agreement. Leaders on both sides hammered out an informal cease-fire agreement Monday night, designed to end the five days of bloody clashes that have seen more than 50 people killed, almost all of them Palestinian or Israeli-Arab. And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright scheduled separate meetings in Paris on Wednesday with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But nobody's bullish on the prospects for either peace initiative. Israeli and Palestinian leaders were skeptical of the cease-fire holding, and sure enough it was over within hours as shooting continued at a number of locations in Gaza and the West Bank. And with Palestinian anger raging and international condemnation raining down on Israel, Secretary Albright may struggle to even get Arafat and Barak into the same room right now.

Maintaining a cease-fire is difficult both because of geography and because of how the clashes occur. Israel has promised it won't fire unless its forces are attacked, and to that end it has begun heeding Palestinian calls to withdraw heavy weaponry from the entrances to Palestinian towns. But the unfinished business of the peace process has left scores of Israeli military outposts dotted throughout Palestinian territory, and those are serving as a lightning rod for Palestinian anger following last week's events in Jerusalem. So the pattern becomes one in which Palestinian youths march on a military outpost, pelt it with stones and gasoline bombs, and the Israelis respond with rubber-coated bullets. These confrontations can then quickly escalate into firefights — whether because the Israelis are using excessive force or because Palestinian gunmen use the demonstrations as an opportunity to take pot shots at the Israelis — which often draw in heavily armed Palestinian policemen. (The recent violence may, indeed, be bad news for Israeli settlers hoping to remain inside Palestinian territory, because it underlines the risk of these fortified outposts' sparking a shooting war that could unravel any future peace agreement.)

Arafat will have his own problems enforcing any cease-fire, since those on the Palestinian street — and quite possibly many in his own security forces — are unlikely to simply forgive and forget the last five days in order to save a peace process that many of them have long since given up on. Besides, Arafat's political case is strengthened by the recent violence, which not only demonstrated the deep passions that animate Palestinian claims on Jerusalem, but may also have swung much of Western public opinion away from Israel's sovereignty claims over the holy sites atop the Temple Mount. So, in fact, Arafat remains ahead of the game domestically right now as long as he doesn't get too cozy with the Israelis.

While his Palestinian counterpart rides a wave, Ehud Barak is in deep, deep trouble at home. While the perception that opposition leader Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Islamic sites on the Temple Mount lit the match of the current violence may help Barak's efforts to stave off defeat in parliament, he may pay dearly for the nine Israeli-Arabs killed Monday when security forces fired on demonstrators. The candidate of Barak's party, Shimon Peres, lost the 1996 election to Benjamin Netanyahu principally because Israeli-Arab voters withdrew their support en bloc, after Peres had ordered attacks in Lebanon that killed a number of civilians. This time, it was their own children who were under fire from Barak's security forces, and that's something Arab-Israeli voters are unlikely to forget next time he needs their support.