Barak Freezes the Peace Process. What Now?

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What cease-fire? Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak announced an indefinite suspension of the peace process Friday after Israel's deadline for the latest cease-fire to take effect was greeted with the worst violence in two weeks. Nine Palestinians were killed and 67 were wounded in clashes throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, the AP reports that the most vicious clash began minutes after Israel's 4 p.m. deadline, when Palestinian militiamen fired on Israeli soldiers, and four Palestinians were killed and 20 wounded when the Israelis returned sustained fire rather than the single-shot bursts that had been the pattern of recent weeks.

Barak had warned earlier that if the violence did not end, Israel would declare an indefinite time out in the peace process. But such a time out may already be a de facto reality, since the momentum of the current violence suggests that neither side can really afford to resume the "final-status" peace negotiations that broke down at Camp David. Even Yasser Arafatís own supporters have shown little enthusiasm for the cease-fire he agreed to at Sharm el-Sheikh, and appear resolved — at least for now — to wage their campaign to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza on the streets rather than at the negotiating table, and that gives Arafat very little political cover to revive talks. Barakís immediate political survival may depend on getting tough and putting the peace process in the deep freeze in order to form a coalition government with the right-wing Likud party. Going back to the negotiating table right now may not suit either side, even though they may work to keep channels open in order to ensure that the low-level shooting war doesnít spin out of control. Seven years after the Oslo Accord, the reality on the West Bank and Gaza remains Israeli occupation and Palestinian intifadah. But now, as then, itís a contest that neither side can really win by force, and at some point theyíll be forced to start talking again. But a lot more blood may be spilt before then.