New Storm Brewing in the Middle East

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Israeli troops sweep through Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart bombings

For all the Bush administration's talk of reviving some form of Middle East peace process, the Petah Tikvah suicide bombing was a sharp reality check. The blast that killed two Israelis Monday and sent Israeli tanks back into Jenin suggested that Israel and the Palestinians are back at Square 1. And Square 1 is not simply the situation of two months ago, or even two years ago. The two sides have managed to rewind the clock by a decade, all the way back to before the Oslo agreement.

"Defensive Shield" marked a paradigm shift for the Israelis: The foundation of Oslo was that the Palestinian Authority would assume security control of the territories designated "Area A" — under full Palestinian control — and prevent attacks on Israel from such areas, while the Israelis would recognize PA control and keep their own forces out of Area A. "Defensive Shield" sounded notice that from an Israeli security point of view, Area A has ceased to exist. Israel now conducts daily operations inside the towns that Oslo placed under PA control, and is, as far as the lives of ordinary Palestinians are concerned, the only relevant authority. It is the Israeli military that determines whether Palestinians living in Bethlehem or Ramallah get to walk their streets or are forced to remain inside under curfew; it is the Israeli military that determines whether Palestinians get to leave one Palestinian city for another; and it is the Israeli military that decides even whether the PA's security personnel are allowed onto their own streets.

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The Israelis insist their security needs now require this de-facto reoccupation of Area A, and are openly disdainful of the Bush administration's plans to rebuild PA security structures in the hope they'll resume their Oslo-mandated function.

Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, is trying desperately to get back in the game. While Ariel Sharon's siege may have failed to render the Palestinian leader "irrelevant," Arafat's newfound freedom may, ironically, have done the job. Arafat denounced the Petah Tikvah bombing, as he has done in response to a number of recent attacks inside Israel — PA leaders even refer to these attacks as "terrorist operations." But that has done nothing to stop a relentless stream of Palestinian youths from turning themselves into human bombs.

Even Arafat's talk of reform, elections by year's end and a new cabinet within a week, has done nothing to ease the plight of ordinary Palestinians. For the residents of the West Bank, Arafat's new freedom of movement contrasts with the Israeli chokehold on their own daily lives, and ability to earn a living — and the blockade on many of those towns is tighter than ever. Half of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza now lives below the poverty line, and even middle class residents of established West Bank towns are reduced to begging neighbors for assistance. Few observers of Palestinian politics are surprised that Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades are having no trouble recruiting suicide bombers, because there's nothing in the present situation that offers young Palestinians hope for a better future.

Sharon's plan appears to be to wear down the resistance of Palestinian militants until they're prepared to accept Israel's terms. But many Israelis have expressed surprise and alarm at how soon after "Defensive Shield" Palestinian attacks have resumed. Washington, at least formally, is opposed to Israel seeking a military solution, and the Bush administration's game plan, in concert with moderates, is to restore conditions for dialogue by getting the PA's security structures to clamp down hard on prospective terrorists. But right now ordinary Palestinians are not taking the PA's security structures any more seriously than the Israelis are, and the two effects tend to reinforce each other: The Israelis are in the West Bank because they don't believe the PA can or will enforce security; the patent impotence of those security forces in the face of the Israelis deepens Palestinian contempt for Arafat's gendarmes and emboldens the militants to simply ignore the efforts by the PA leadership to halt attacks inside Israel. More terror attacks push Israelis to demand further action; the hatred inspired by the collective punishment endured by the Palestinian population suggests the PA won't get much domestic support for a crackdown.

So, as much as Washington and its Arab allies would like to use the planned regional peace conference in June to create momentum toward some form of long-term peace agreement, the situation on the ground reinforces hard-line positions. For Sharon, the ongoing security crisis is a reason to postpone serious discussion over a long-term peace agreement. For the militants on the Palestinian side, the ongoing Israeli operations in Area A cities strip away what they see as the illusions of Oslo and reinforce a belief among Palestinians that armed struggle is the only effective response to the occupation.

Not only does the current standoff threaten to cloud any peace discussions this summer; it threatens at any moment to blow up in a new wave of violence that would entirely eclipse such discussions. The sharp uptick in attacks on Israelis and the continued Israeli operations inside Area A is more likely to produce a new explosion of bloodshed rather than any progress towards peace. Those who believe in Oslo's basic premise — that Israel and the Palestinian Authority can find their way to peace through bilateral negotiations — are fast becoming an endangered species. (Indeed, the only mainstream Israeli leader who still talks in these terms is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and even in his own Labor Party his views are considered somewhat eccentric.) The deteriorating situation on the ground may soon leave Washington and its allies with the choice of either letting the two sides bleed, or else contemplating the politically perilous notion of forcibly separating them.