Mideast Cease-Fire Inspires Little Confidence

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Oral agreements, as the saying goes, are worth about as much as the paper on which they're written. And in the case of the cease-fire agreed to at Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, the oral agreement was not one between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, but rather two separate agreements between each man and President Clinton. That leaves each side to interpret the agreement according to their own explanation of the current violence, and gives it at best a 50-50 chance of holding. Israel has ostensibly agreed to withdraw its army from the perimeter of most major Palestinian population centers, to which it has effectively laid siege over the past three weeks, and to reopen passages between those centers. And the Palestinians are expected, in turn, to restore and maintain law and order in areas under their control. But Israel signaled that it will wait 48 hours before enacting any retreat, in order to establish that violence has indeed ebbed. And the Palestinians, of course, claim that it's impossible to restore calm as long as Israeli soldiers are but a stone's throw away.

Tuesday's deal was hastily cobbled together, to be sure, with vague promises — for instance, that the U.S. "would consult" over the next two weeks over restarting the peace process — offering very little by way of satisfying President Clinton's hope that the summit could revive comprehensive peace talks. But then the price of an explicit failure at the summit would have been to escalate the conflict, so once gathered the leaders had little choice but to fudge at least some of their differences.

But even if the Israelis pull back their troops and Yasser Arafat is able to muster the requisite political authority to stop young Palestinians from marching on their positions — and right now that's a very big "if," as not only his Islamist opposition but even much of the grassroots membership of his own Fatah organization has virulently and openly opposed the agreement at Sharm el-Sheikh — the latest agreement may only temporarily separate the combatants on each side.

The fact that Palestinian rage over events in Jerusalem could have escalated within hours to an intifada-style uprising throughout the West Bank and Gaza is a stark reminder that six years after the Oslo Accord, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza hasn't ever really ended. From the dusty refugee camps of Gaza and the biblical towns of the West Bank, Palestinians looking to vent their rage on Israeli troops and settlements didn't have to look further than within walking distance of their homes. Israel was under attack in the last three weeks, but for the most part not inside Israel proper. As during the intifada, almost all of the fighting took place inside the territories occupied since 1967, most of which Prime Minister Barak had planned to turn over to Arafat. Indeed, President Clinton called at the conclusion of Tuesday's talks for a resumption of peace negotiations based, inter alia, on U.N. Resolution 242 — which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the war of 1967.

The Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, however, simply withdraws Israeli troops from the entrance to every Palestinian town. As long as they remain dotted throughout the West Bank and Gaza, protecting Jewish settlements built after 1967 that are viewed as illegal by Palestinians, the soldiers will be a magnet for Palestinian rage. That fact has suited Arafat these past three weeks because it has given him leverage to counter pressure from the U.S. and Israel to sign away Palestinian claims on the Temple Mount. But despite Arafat's having made his point and agreed to a cease-fire, his political authority, even over his own loyalists, may have waned considerably — particularly in light of such situations as that which led to the Ramallah lynching, where his security forces stand between angry Palestinians and the object of their anger. This suggests that those who'll want to continue the intifada will have plenty of opportunity. Indeed, clashes continued throughout the two-day summit and after the announcement of the cease-fire.

The chances of resolving the potential for violence in the current pattern of troop and settlement distribution are considerably diminished now that the peace process itself is on the back burner. Three weeks of rage not only showed how deeply Palestinians distrust the peace process, they also bled the Israeli peace camp of much of its faith in the process. Just as the center of gravity in Palestinian politics has shifted toward the militancy of the Islamists and Fatah grass roots, so has the momentum in Israeli politics swung dramatically against Prime Minister Barak's peace policy. Barak is already seeking out a coalition with the right-wing Likud party, and few observers doubt that if he went to the polls now, he'd be trounced by a resurgent Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Oslo Accord left the hardest parts for last, assuming that Israelis and Palestinians would build mutual trust through incremental steps toward peace. Instead, the opposite occurred. And so the hardest parts of a long-term peace remain to be resolved, but the goodwill that first put them on the table has long since been burnt to a cinder. For now, the best Israelis and Palestinians, and their regional and foreign backers, may be able to hope for is not to resolve the conflict, but simply to contain it.