Mideast Cease-fire May Depend on the U.S.

  • Share
  • Read Later

German Foreign Minister Fischer urges Arafat to enforce a cease-fire

It took the bloodiest single outrage of the nine-month intifada to wake Yasser Arafat up to the bankruptcy of his strategy. And it was a rude awakening at that, as European Union diplomats twisted his arm until he cracked and went on Palestinian TV and, speaking in Arabic, condemned the terrorist attack that killed 20 Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday and ordered his forces to cease firing.

Reports from the region Monday suggested that despite sporadic outbreaks of violence in the West Bank and a fierce firefight in Gaza, the level of violence has been substantially reduced since Arafat's call. The radical Hamas movement, which has never supported the peace process, even issued a statement undertaking to suspend terror attacks inside Israel. But Hamas and even Arafat's own Fatah organization vowed to continue their uprising in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The Israelis, for their part, appear to also have awakened to the reality that they are unable to restore their security through military means. While a far smaller terror attack three weeks ago had prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to send F-16s to bomb the West Bank and Gaza, this time the Israelis heeded Western appeals to hold their fire. But although its guns were mostly silent, Israel has subjected all Palestinian towns to the harshest chokehold since the current intifada began last October — a collective punishment which may make it more difficult for Arafat to sell his cease-fire to his own constituents. Indeed, an opinion poll published Monday found that in a random sample of some 700 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, a full 76 percent supported suicide bombings against Israel.

Bowing, for now, to international pressure
Still, the Sharon government is all too aware that air strikes are an ineffective weapon against suicide bombers sent by Islamist groups who have always opposed the peace process and who celebrate martyrdom. So while Israel has reportedly drawn up a list of targets for even heavier air strikes if it is unsatisfied by Arafat's cease-fire efforts, under present circumstances the Jewish State's best hope of stemming the tide of suicide bombings remains Arafat's own security apparatus. Israel has targeted those forces in retaliation for bombings authored by his Islamist rivals precisely because it blames the Palestinian leader for not policing their activities.

This time, the Israelis appear to have restrained themselves to allow Western pressure to force Arafat to act against the militants. The Palestinian leader's own goal of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza is only possible through negotiations with Israel. But more than any strategic epiphany, the restraint shown by both sides since Friday night was a product of concerted international intervention.

Arafat's cease-fire statement was actually drafted during a heated meeting with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, and the Palestinian leader's sense of being cornered diplomatically was underscored by the insistence of everyone from President George W. Bush to President Vladimir Putin that the Palestinian leader call for an end to violence if he wanted international help in restarting negotiations.

In explaining their restraint to their own people, both Arafat and Sharon made no secret of the fact that they were bowing to international pressure in their nations' best interests. The question of whether the current interlude of restraint is the prelude to a more comprehensive shift back towards dialogue as the defining feature of Israeli-Palestinian relations depends in large part on whether Western governments — particularly Washington, which is viewed as the only outside party able to influence Israeli decisions — follow though on their refereeing role. And that's something of a big "if," since until now deep pessimism over the prospects for success has kept the Bush administration from being drawn in as mediator.

Problems for Arafat
But the cease-fire may be under more immediate threat, as Sharon faces a growing chorus of Israelis, led by the right-wing settler leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, demanding tough action in response to Friday's bombing, while Arafat's adherence to a cease-fire makes his own political position even more perilous. He has been forced, as he put it, "in the higher national interest" to essentially call off an intifada that has claimed almost 500 Palestinian lives without realizing any tangible gains. Indeed, on the weekend that he made his call, all West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were facing the harshest crackdown in years on their movements and livelihoods. Sections of Arafat's own Fatah movement that have openly defied him for months met Sunday with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical factions to discuss the latest cease-fire efforts, and vowed to fight on. Arafat will find it difficult to persuade his security forces to once again begin rounding up the Islamists alongside whom they've fought over the past nine months, in pursuit of a diplomatic strategy in which few of them have any faith. And yet without such arrests, Israel says it won't trust Arafat's bona fides.

Without some very active refereeing, handholding and cajoling on the part of the U.S., the current cease-fire may prove too brittle to hold. Never mind the difficulties that would arise if they actually did manage to restart political negotiations, given that the intractable differences that prevented agreement at Camp David have hardened considerably after nine months of bloodletting.