Israel: The Cease-Fire Can Not Hold

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The smart money says that Israel and the Palestinians will be unable to sustain their current tenuous cease-fire. The reason? The truce arose out of tactical necessity for both sides, rather than being driven by a strategic vision. Israel's gains on the international diplomatic front by holding back from retaliating following the Tel Aviv disco bombing three weeks ago far outweigh any gains it would have derived from launching new air strikes. And for Yasser Arafat, the alternative to declaring a cease-fire was to be cut off from Western financial and diplomatic support and having his administration destroyed by the Israeli military.

Neither side is particularly positive about the prospects for the cease-fire — their demeanor speaks of a truce imposed from the outside by an international community concerned to keep a lid on the crisis. As the Economist put it, this is a "peace of the truculent." Both sides are accusing the other of failing to do their bit (the Palestinians are not arresting Hamas and Islamic Jihad members; the Israelis have not comprehensively lifted their closure of Palestinian areas) and warning that time is running out.

But if the truce were to hold, it would create a political crisis for the leadership on both sides, since that would force them back to the negotiating table in search of a long-term peace agreement — and the differences between them today are a lot sharper than they were when the Camp David peace talks collapsed last summer.

The nays have it

Of course, they may not make it back to the negotiating table just yet. The current cease fire leaves the initiative in the hands of the naysayers. Although the truce is surviving one day at a time despite a steady daily death toll in minor clashes, all it would take to rekindle the blaze would be one suicide bombing in a crowded Israeli marketplace, or one settler zealot emptying his weapon into a crowd of Palestinians. And that's a serious concern, since there are substantial militant constituencies on both sides who have no interest in seeing the cease-fire hold.

For the Palestinian militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat's peace agreements with Israel have always been beyond the pale, and their suicide bombings inside Israel have been a message both to the Israelis and to the Palestinian leader. Neither organization is likely to seek a direct showdown with Arafat on the Palestinian streets; instead, they'll challenge Arafat's authority by sending their kamikazes into Israel when he's trying to return to peace talks. And it's not only the radical Islamists who have no interest in the cease fire: A growing faction of Arafat's own Fatah organization see no value in ending their intifada in order to send Arafat back to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans. Instead, they're more inclined to believe that Hezbollah's tactic of protracted guerrilla warfare will ultimately drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza.

Waiting for an outrage

On the flip side of that strategic coin are the settlers, who have little to gain and much to lose from a resumption of the peace process. After all, the basic premise of the peace process has been that the Israelis will withdraw from some or all of the West Bank and Gaza (depending on which side you listen to), and that prospect is fundamentally threatening to a settler movement whose principal objective has always been a permanent Israeli presence in those territories. The deal offered by Barak at Camp David last year would have ultimately involved Israel abandoning a significant number of settlements, and despite the fact that Sharon is a longtime champion of the settlement movement, even he has been forced to accept the principle of some form of settlement freeze as part of the current cease-fire formula.

The settlers demand that Sharon abandon the cease-fire and launch a military campaign to destroy the Palestinian Authority. On the Palestinian side, the Islamists and other militants are openly vowing to continue the fight. The original Oslo peace process factored in efforts by radicals on both sides to sabotage the process, leading to Rabin's formulation that "we will fight terrorism as if there is no peace, and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism." But there's no such separation of issues in Sharon's mind. The duration of the cease-fire may simply be measured by how long it takes a suicide bomber to get the better of both Israeli and Palestinian security efforts and detonate a bomb inside Israel. One was defused Monday in Haifa, but sooner or later the security forces' luck will run out.

The crisis of peace

But assume, for a moment, that by some miracle the cease-fire manages to stick. That's when the real political crisis comes on both sides. The public spat that came when Sharon ordered foreign minister Shimon Peres to stay away from a meeting with Yasser Arafat was a reminder that while it is united on security matters, Israel's unity government will struggle to speak with one voice on the question of peace.

And the current cease-fire is not an end in itself, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reminded the players at the weekend. It's a stepping stone to resuming political negotiations. Absent those, the Palestinians have no incentive to keep the peace. But political negotiations are a major problem for Sharon, because he has very little to offer. He believes Oslo is dead, and insists he'll only discuss long-term interim agreements. But for Arafat, the only purpose of talking to the Israelis rather than fighting them is the possibility that this will achieve his cherished Palestinian state. He'll struggle convince Palestinians that there's any merit in simply agreeing to coexist peacefully under the current distribution of land and power between the two peoples.

Peace talks will force both sides to once again confront the fundamental differences that sent them to war in the first place. And all the bloodshed of the past nine months is unlikely to have moved them any closer to resolving those.