Why the Mideast Remains Pessimistic Over a Cease-Fire

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A Palestinian youth throws a Molotov cocktail at Israeli soldiers

TIME.com: What are the chances of the latest diplomatic initiatives bringing a cease-fire?

Jamil Hamad: Neither Ariel Sharon nor the Palestinians can afford to say no to the U.S. or to the Mitchell Report. In his cease-fire speech today Sharon did his best to show that there was harmony between the U.S. and Israeli positions, at the same time as reassuring the right-wingers and settlers that he was not going to accept a settlement freeze.

Sharon spoke in a different language, a softer tone, but he said nothing new — he urged the Palestinians to cease fire, and said that Israel would immediately respond positively. This is what he has said all along. Neither side will reject the Mitchell Report, and both sides will say they're committed to implementing it. But that doesn't mean it will happen.

Colin Powell is sending an assistant to talk to both sides, but not even giving him the authority of an envoy. You can tell from the way Powell is staying away from direct involvement in the Middle East that he is not sure that the Palestinians and Israelis are going to implement the Mitchell Report — and he doesn't want to invest his prestige in something that turns out to be a failure.

How badly does Prime Minister Sharon need a cease-fire right now?

Matt Rees: He came under a certain amount of pressure after the F-16 strikes, but he's not facing overwhelming opposition. Israelis are not exactly taking to the streets demanding a cease-fire. Since his election, Sharon has always equated a cease-fire with an unconditional end to attacks by Palestinians, rather than in exchange for a freeze on settlements. Sharon and his supporters say Arafat started the violence, and the Israelis shouldn't have to give anything up in order to end it. That was his election position, and he sees no reason to change it.

But the emphasis in the Mitchell Report on the issue of suggests the international community believes there's little chance of getting Palestinians to stop fighting Israel as long there's no hope of the current conditions of Israeli rule on the West Bank and Gaza being changed…

Rees: That may be the way the Americans and Europeans see it, but Sharon refuses to return to the position Barak was in before the intifada, which resulted in Barak being driven from office by Arafat. Sharon was extremely critical of the offers made by Barak. He doesn't necessarily even need a cease-fire; he just needs to tone down the current violence. The F-16 strikes were condemned as stupid by many Israelis, and the international community was scandalized. But if Sharon had confined himself to the assassinations, helicopter strikes and sending his troops into Palestinian controlled areas which have become commonplace in recent weeks, he could have kept on doing that for a very long time before there was pressure for restraint. There are reports of discussions in some government circles about whether it might be better for Israel if the Palestinian Authority was allowed to collapse and Arafat was forced back into exile. Not that Sharon is thinking this way, but it shows the mood of some of his supporters. So he may not want a cease-fire badly enough to pay a price for one.

So are the two sides simply posturing to improve their diplomatic positions in the face of foreign pressure to end the violence?

Hamad: Both sides are putting on their best face. You'll hear tomorrow that the Bush administration is happy with the positive response from the region to the Mitchell Report. But you'll also hear about the continuation of the violence. Diplomatic efforts don't mean much on the ground. There, the shells and bombs and rockets and gunfire speaks louder.

But doesn't the latest initiative throw Arafat a lifeline? Doesn't he need a way out of the current stalemate?

Hamad: Arafat is in a predicament. On one hand, he's urging Arab states to break ties with Israel; on the other hand, he's appealing to Americans behind the scenes to broker a deal. But he's also angry at the Americans — today he canceled a meeting he was scheduled to hold with U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk.

Arafat may have some control over the militants in his own Fatah organization, but he is not capable of restricting the Islamist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Today the Israelis defused 20 powerful roadside bombs in Gaza, and there was some mortar shelling. And if he goes after the Islamists, he'd be in big trouble among his own people and throughout the Arab world. On the ground, the radical line is winning these days.

U.S. media is reporting opinion polls suggesting that the Israeli public is more willing than Sharon to accept a settlement freeze as the price for a cease-fire…

Rees: It depends on what you mean by a settlement freeze. A majority may be prepared to say no new settlements, but even Shimon Peres and the Labor Party are saying there should be natural expansion of existing settlements. So if you took a poll on whether there should be no further construction at all in existing settlements, it's unlikely that a majority would support that. The Israelis are looking for a Peres-style sleight of hand that allows them to tell the Americans and Palestinians that there's some form of settlement freeze while telling Israelis, particularly the settlers and their supporters in the cabinet, that construction will continue and that this is in no way the first step towards abandoning the settlements. This is a government far more ideologically pro-settler than the previous one, even if the previous one was putting the future of settlements on the negotiating table but continued to build them at a furious pace.