Mideast Cease-fire Flounders Without a Referee

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A car bomb exploded outside a school in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya

Left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians appear to be unable to end the violence that continues to rage in the West Bank and Gaza. Which means that as long as the U.S. resists playing the thankless — and ill-starred — role of referee, there are slim grounds for optimism over the prospects for a cease-fire, let alone a peace agreement.

Clashes in the West Bank continued Thursday as Israeli and Palestinian officials prepared for a third day of meetings on security cooperation under U.S. auspices, but few observers saw much sign that the meetings will have any impact on the situation on the ground. Indeed, two of the most senior Palestinian officials invited — Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, who run Palestinian security structures in the West Bank and Gaza respectively — have conspicuously refused to attend, citing incidents in which they came under fire as evidence that the Israelis had targeted them for elimination. But their absence was also calculated to send the political message that many of Arafat's lieutenants believe security talks can only be held within a broader framework of political agreement if they are to have any benefit to Palestinians.

The militant Islamists who have always opposed the peace process appear to be reviving their tested tactic of stepping up terror strikes inside Israel proper to sabotage any movement back towards the negotiating table. On Wednesday, Islamic Jihad detonated a car bomb near a school in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya, and further attacks are likely. Even more worrying for Arafat are the growing signs of factionalism within his own Fatah organization, whose militant rank and file shares the sentiment on the Palestinian street against resuming cooperation with Israel. On Tuesday, members of the Fatah Hawks organization kidnapped two Newsweek journalists for five hours to protest Western support for Israel — a move unlikely to have been authorized within Arafat's circles, and an act of insubordination that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Arafat, for his part, is touring Europe hoping to rally support for his call for a more muscular and simultaneous implementation of all of the Mitchell Report's recommendations (as opposed to the step-by-step approach preferred by the Israelis) and for the Europeans to play a greater mediating role. But while they'll cluck sympathetically at his plight, the Europeans are for the most part making clear to Arafat that they're not going to be his cavalry, and that the prospects for a cease-fire depend on him, Sharon and the Bush administration.

Sharon, too, is under mounting domestic pressure from his traditional hard-line constituency. The Israeli settlers, whose cause he has long championed and who have always opposed a peace process that put the future of their very presence in the West Bank and Gaza on the negotiating table, are demanding that Sharon respond more forcefully to continuing Palestinian attacks. And with settlers dying almost daily as Palestinian militants pursue a strategy of trying to force them out of the West Bank and Gaza by making their lives there unbearable, Sharon has signaled that he may be about to end the unilateral "cease-fire" he declared a week ago.

On both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides, now, the political initiative is increasingly in the hands of those least inclined to make peace. Arafat and Sharon both proclaim their desire to implement the Mitchell Report, but their interpretations of the report's proposals are so divergent that in the absence of a referee decisively laying down the law, both sides' stated support for Mitchell's proposals has little meaning in reality. That leaves the Bush administration having to weigh the merits of staying on the sidelines as violence potentially spins out of control against the relative probability of failure if they choose to intervene. Damned if they do and damned if they don't.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem