In the Mideast, a Ceasefire or a Spin War?

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A Palestinian youth hurls stones at Israeli soldiers in Hebron

Senator George Mitchell may have hoped to help engineer an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire; instead, his report into Mideast violence has started a new spin war. And Israel has had the better of the opening volleys. By ordering his troops to avoid firing unless their lives were threatened, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon achieved three important effects: He complied with Washington's request that Israel make the first gesture towards implementing the Mitchell Report by declaring a unilateral cease-fire; he made the Palestinians look like the spoilers for deriding that gesture; and he has drawn the focus of discussion away from the fact that he has no intention of complying with the settlement-freeze recommended by the Mitchell Report as essential to creating a climate for peace.

The military meaning of Sharon's announcement was far from clear, since Israel has cast most of its actions during the current Palestinian uprising as acts of self-defense. Israel may ease up on preemptive strikes, but continuing firefights Thursday suggest the announcement won't be enough to significantly reduce the level of violence.

There has certainly been no letup thus far in attacks by Palestinian militants, nor is there likely to be until both sides have embraced the Mitchell proposals in their entirity. These require the Palestinian Authority to stop Palestinian militants from firing on Israelis, and to arrest known terrorists. But in the current climate, Arafat won't risk the heavy political price he'd have to pay on the Palestinian street for going after the radicals unless there was a tangible political incentive for doing so. And Sharon's position on the settlement question is likely to make more impact on Arafat than his cease-fire call, and the Palestinian leader is unlikely to be moved to do anything about fulfilling his side of the Mitchell proposals in the absence of a settlement freeze. Indeed, Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid appeared to echo Palestinian skepticism when he accused Sharon of only pretending to adopt the Mitchell plan, saying that without a settlement freeze the proposals were meaningless.

Arafat spokesmen did themselves few favors in the propaganda war by simply dismissing Sharon's offer as a "trick." But the Palestinians may do better with their demand for an international conference to formulate mechanisms for implementing the Mitchell proposals. That's a coded way of saying there's going to be no game without a referee, and the only plausible referee — as ever — is the U.S. And that suggests we're a long way off from a cease-fire, since the Bush administration clearly has no intention of running onto a field that from Washington's distance looks like a chaotic quagmire. Despite endorsing the Mitchell Report in principle, Washington has simply urged to the two sides to implement it and has kept U.S. involvement to a minimum. Washington has appointed a low-level diplomat to consult with both sides over their attitudes to the Mitchell proposals, but President Bush clearly has no intention of reprising anything close to the hand-on role played by President Clinton, and even Secretary of State Colin Powell is steering clear of personal involvement in efforts to broker a cease-fire — precisely because the risk of failure, and the inevitable blow to U.S. prestige, is too high. And the cautious distance maintained by the Bush administration may be its most eloquent statement on the prospects for stopping the violence any time soon.