Middle East: The Truce Hurts

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An Israeli bomb squad policeman examines the area where two car bombs went off

The Palestinians say the seven-day hiatus in violence that kicks off a six-week "cooling off" period began last Wednesday; the Israelis say it has yet to begin. A weekend that included Palestinian militants killed in an Israeli rocket attack and two car bombs detonated deep inside Israel appeared to render the discussion moot, and the more immediate countdown now may be the one that ends with the collapse of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, which will be followed by a race between Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Secretary of State Colin Powell to be the first to say "I told you so."

Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from the region last week having tried to get both sides to agree to a timetable for implementation. In the end, they agreed to some of the broad elements of that timetable, but appeared to have entirely different ideas as to the sequence of steps required of each side. There are few signs that either side is taking to the bank a truce that neither embraced with much enthusiasm. But Powell was there under sufferance, doing his best to lower expectations and never hiding the fact that his trip came in response to calls from moderate Arab states and other U.S. allies for Washington to do more to keep a lid on the conflict. Failure of the cease-fire will simply vindicate his initial caution and skepticism over the wisdom of the Bush administration trying to play referee.

Trashing Arafat

Sharon makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't trust Arafat or believe that the Palestinian leader is a peace partner. The Israeli prime minister has gone along with the cease-fire process primarily at the behest of the Americans as a means of claiming the diplomatic high ground. To the extent that it holds, he can also claim to be delivering on his promise to Israeli voters to restore their sense of security. And if it fails, he'll use that to demand diplomatic support for an even harsher crackdown on the Palestinians.

Indeed, the present ambiguous "pre-cease fire" may be exactly the situation Sharon aimed for when he came into office proclaiming the quest for long-term peace deals with the Palestinians unrealistic, suggesting instead that Israel pursue "rolling cease-fires" and long-term interim arrangements. To be sure, if the current cease-fire were to pass both its seven-day and six-week authenticity tests, Sharon would face something of a political crisis. Besides the fact that the "confidence building" mechanisms of the current truce include a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, which Sharon and his supporters reject, the cease-fire is supposed to result in a revival of the political negotiations eclipsed by the ten-month intifada. But the political talks broke down at Camp David when Yasser Arafat was unable to embrace the deal offered by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak — and Sharon plans to offer the Palestinians considerably less than Barak did. In other words, when it comes to political negotiations, Sharon and Arafat may not have much to talk about.

Trashing Sharon

It's unlikely to get to that any time soon, however. Rather than try to force the pace, the U.S. has left it up to Sharon to decide when the various trial periods testing the cease-fire are to begin. And he's plainly in no hurry, as the Palestinians are quick to point out. Indeed, just as Sharon does little to hide his contempt for the idea of Arafat as a negotiating partner, so have some of Arafat's aides begun to openly state their skepticism that any progress towards a peace agreement will be made while Sharon leads Israel. The subtext, then, may be a continuing war of attrition as each side awaits the internal collapse of the leadership on the other side. But along the way, both sides will also do the minimum necessary to satisfy the concerns of the Bush administration, which gives Powell some leverage to prevent the situation spinning out of control, although not necessarily enough to move it along to the next stage. In other words, the present unstable not-quite-cease fire may be as good as it gets for some time to come.