Glimmers of Hope Amid the Mideast Carnage?

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A woman is comforted after an attack by a Palestinian gunman in Jerusalem

The grim reaper may not yet have named his victims, but he has a quota to fill — the only safe bet in the Middle East right now is that more people on both sides are slated to die in the coming weeks. Forty-six people were wounded by a Palestinian gunman on a shooting rampage in Jerusalem, Tuesday, only hours after Israeli forces killed four Hamas activists in the West Bank town of Nablus. Israeli forces had entered Nablus and also Tulkarm in response to last Thursday's attack on a Bat Mitzvah celebration in the Israeli city of Hadera, where a Palestinian gunman shot dead six revelers. The terrorists, in both instances, were sent not by Hamas, but by the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade — an armed group linked with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, which claimed to be avenging last week's assassination of one of its local leaders. And, once the Jerusalem shooter's address and affiliations are firmly established, expect to see further Israeli action — and further terror attacks.

The U.S. responded to Tuesday's attack by demanding that Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat do more to rein in the militants. "He needs to dismantle the organizations that do these things," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Referring to recent statements by militant groups suspending their undertakings not to launch attacks inside Israel in response to Arafat's December 16 cease-fire call, Boucher added: "It's not a matter of whether they decide they will or they won't carry out attacks, it's making sure that they can't."

But Washington's exhortations have for the most part proved no more effective than Prime Minister Sharon's military actions in ending armed action by militant Palestinian groups. A faint glimmer of hope followed Arafat's December call, with even the Israeli military acknowledging that a period of relative calm had followed. That, of course, was because the militants of Arafat's own Fatah organization and also radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, had signed on. But in the absence of any paradigm-shifting breakthrough, the respite was always going to be temporary. A week into January, Hamas broke its silence with an attack on a military outpost on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. Then came the Karine A weapons shipment, which Israel claims proved Arafat malafides as a peace partner. And then the Karni assassination, which prompted the grassroots structures of Arafat's own organization to void his cease-fire. Hamas on Tuesday promised an "all-out war" in retaliation for the Nablus killings, and Israel's military intelligence chief warned legislators to expect even harsher terror strikes in the coming weeks as vengeance now tops the priorities of the Islamist group.

The predictability of the current escalation testifies to the absence of a strategy on either side capable of stabilizing the situation. Israel's blockades, air strikes, assassinations and mini-invasions of Palestinian-controlled towns has not stopped a steady stream of gunmen and suicide bombers. There's little reason to believe that more of the same will succeed. But reoccupying the West Bank and Gaza urban centers remains exceedingly risky for the Israelis, both politically and militarily, and they're more likely to maintain the current pattern of moving troops in with heavy air- and armored support to do house-to-house searches, make arrests, and then withdrawing.

Such actions haven't stopped Palestinian militants making hit-and-run attacks and suicide strikes, but armed action by Palestinians has done little to advance their cause politically, militarily or diplomatically. The attacks have hardened Israel's resolve, alienated the West, brought harsh repression down on ordinary Palestinians and put the goals of statehood and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza even further beyond reach. There's a grim consensus in Palestinian society today that the al-Aqsa intifada has achieved little for their people — but that doesn't stop the militants who flip the equation by asking what will be achieved by yielding now, in the absence of any Palestinian gains. And Yasser Arafat, pinned down in his office in Ramallah by Israeli tanks, appears to be simply bobbing on the waves of chaos swelling all around him now, his ability to rein in the militants increasingly in question even if that were his unambiguous intention.

Still, the picture is not entirely gloomy — there are growing signs on both sides of a recognition of the inevitability of returning to peace talks.

Israel's traumatized peace camp has recently begun showing signs of renewed life and political self-confidence — and it has begun to restore relations with its Palestinian counterparts. Just last week, former negotiator Yossi Beilin tried to persuade the Labor Party to walk out of Sharon's unity government on the grounds that the prime minister lacks a strategy to restore peace. The bid failed, but dovish Labor leaders are becoming more forthright in their criticisms — Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff recently lamented that the government had failed to take advantage of the "window of opportunity" for restoring dialogue created by Arafat's December speech. And Knesset speaker Avram Burg has accepted an invitation to address the Palestinian legislature in Ramallah next month — over the objections of Sharon, who nixed a similar initiative by President Moshe Katsav last December. Two weeks ago, Burg and Beilin led a delegation of Israeli leaders (mostly from the left-wing benches of parliament) to South Africa where, along with a delegation of Palestinians led by Arafat's chief negotiator, Saeeb Erekat, they huddled for three days with the leaders who had negotiated South Africa's near-miraculous peaceful transition away from apartheid.

On the Palestinian side, there are signs of a new willingness to move beyond traditional articles of faith, and even to challenge Arafat himself. The latter move, of course, is coming more from his own left flank, where some legislators, activists and intellectuals such as human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouti have launched a campaign to strengthen Palestinian democracy — a direct challenge to the authoritarian cronyism of Arafat's regime — and a shift back towards non-violent protest against Israel's occupation in what they consider to be an "overly-militarized intifada." And Arafat's own point-man in Jerusalem, the philosophy professor Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, has ruffled feathers by publicly urging his countrymen to drop the demand for the right of return by 3 million Palestinian refugees to Israel proper — a demand Arafat himself continues to evince as an article of faith. Nusseibeh has also conceded that the future Palestinian state would have to remain demilitarized. That said, however, he also insists it should consist of all of the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, i.e. all of the West Bank and Jordan and the eastern half of Jerusalem. Nusseibeh's newfound "celebrity" — U.S. and European delegations are lining up to meet with him — is not based solely on his out-of-the-box thinking; it's also helped by the fact that he has proved, most recently during a peace workshop he convened in Jerusalem last December attended by some 900 Israeli peace activists, political leaders and intellectuals who signed a joint declaration, that he can get the other side to listen.

New initiatives to break the logjam will be reinforced by this week's conference in Egypt between senior Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian rabbis, imams and priests, which resulted in a joint declaration that condemned "killing innocents in the name of God" and committed the signatories "to throw their moral weight behind attempts to stop the violence." Participants included Israeli and Palestinian cabinet members, and the head of Islam's most prestigious university, Cairo's Al Azhar.

The emergence of similar initiatives at the political margins and in civil society has often been the precursor, in other conflict situations, to direct political negotiations between the protagonists. The fact that they're occurring almost a decade after the Oslo agreements is an indicator of the extent to which that process has collapsed. But also of the recognition by growing constituencies on both sides that, sooner or later, they will have no alternative but to start over.