In the Mideast, the Taste for Peace Appears Fleeting

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SCOTT NELSON/AFP

Palestinian youths wave an array of flags at a Hamas rally

For the first few months of the current intifada, it seemed possible to imagine the violence as an alarming interruption in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But after eight months of bitter fighting that has left Israelis and Palestinians more intractably divided than ever, it appears that the peace process itself may have been a short-lived interim in an epic conflict.

Fierce fighting throughout the West Bank and Gaza on Friday and for most of the past week underscored the fact that, almost eight months into the current uprising, the two sides appear further than ever from reaching a truce, much less from concluding any sort of political agreements. Palestinian militants continue to fire mortars and rifles at Israeli positions and settlements, and Israel this week intercepted a shipment of weapons bound for Gaza from Lebanon, which included Katyusha rockets and surface-to-air missiles, and told the Israeli media they believe at least two such shipments got through before this one. In other words, Israel is bracing for a serious escalation of Palestinian guerrilla actions. And Israeli military sources warned Friday that the Fatah movement of their erstwhile negotiating partner Yasser Arafat, as well as his security and bodyguard detachments, were now considered enemy forces by Israel. Incursions by Israeli forces into areas formally under the jurisdiction of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which were unprecedented a month ago, now occur almost daily, along with rocket strikes on Palestinian Authority installations. And yet the Palestinian militants appear undeterred, continuing a relentless campaign of attacks against Israelis.

On both sides, the strategy appears to be a war of attrition: The Israelis want to make the cost of continuing the uprising unbearable for Palestinians; the Palestinian militants want to make the cost of maintaining an Israeli military and settler presence in the West Bank and Gaza unbearable for the Israelis. And this trial of strength creates something of a long-term political crisis for leaders on all sides:

  • Israelis have rallied behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's promises of tough measures to restore security. But while the measures get tougher, the security menace to daily life in Israel and particularly on its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza shows little sign of abating. A low-key state of war is once again becoming a way of life for the Jewish State, and that may take a heavy toll on its morale after the optimism of the '90s.

  • Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's political authority has derived, in large part, from his promise that the peace process would end Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. But now that the intifada has eclipsed the peace process, his relevance is under threat. Already, a number of calls made by Arafat — under pressure from Washington — to curb Palestinian attacks have been ignored, even flouted, by his followers. Arafat may be politically unable to embrace a cease-fire if its terms make the sacrifices his intifada has demanded of ordinary Palestinians over the past eight months seem worthless. And while the Israelis constantly promise to ease the load on ordinary Palestinians and isolate the militants, such promises have meant very little on the ground, where poverty, rage and despair continues to drive Palestinians into the arms of Hamas, Hizballah and other forces more radical than Arafat.

  • The continuing uprising is a domestic political nightmare for both Jordan and Egypt, whose regimes are coming under growing pressure from a citizenry enraged by images of carnage from just across the border. It is in their urgent self-interest to calm the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, which is why they've been promoting a cease-fire plan with the Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Europeans. But there are few signs, thus far, that either the Israelis or the Palestinians are politically able to embrace its terms.

  • The U.S. is growing increasingly concerned over the danger that an escalation in violence could destabilize the region. The Bush administration has hoped to take a more stand-off approach to the region, but violence has escalated despite its calls for calm. In order to make a cease-fire possible, Washington has been leaning on the Palestinians to halt attacks on Israelis, and is growing more vocal in urging Israel to freeze settlement activity and ease the burden of daily life in the West Bank and Gaza. But thus far, there’s been little progress on either front.

    The sobering reality is that the events since last September have dramatically diminished not only the prospects for a return to peace negotiations, but also the appetite for it on either side. The Palestinian uprising has forged a unity among Israelis rarely seen outside of war-time, and they've lost all faith in negotiations with Arafat or any other Palestinian leader. Ideas such as a settlement freeze right now are dismissed as "rewarding violence," and the settlers are pressing the government for even harsher measures against Palestinians. Among Palestinians, too, nobody's talking about peace any more. And each new casualty on either side raises the political obstacles to the leaders returning to the negotiating table. The mutual hatred that Oslo was meant to bury may now be at an all time high.

    Still, all is not lost. Peace and violence, of course, move in cycles in the Middle East. And while the peace cycle of the 1990s appears to have run its course, there's little doubt that eventually the two sides will tire of the increasingly bloody stalemate and start talking again. But that would require a winding down of the cycle of violence. And right now the signs are that it hasn't yet peaked.

    With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem