New Hope for Mideast Truce?

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Israeli troops, backed up by a tank, patrol the Gaza Strip

That Israelis and Palestinian are even talking about a "Gaza-first" cease-fire plan is a sign of growing despair on both sides. Moves to negotiate a new truce with the Palestinian Authority (PA) suggest Israel's recognition of the failure of its military actions to end terror attacks. And for Palestinian negotiators the idea of restoring security cooperation with Israel even while its troops maintain a stranglehold over the West Bank is an admission of how few cards they hold. But divisions in both camps — and in the Bush administration, whose active involvement the plan will require — suggest that the current talks may turn out to be little more than another false start.

A Palestinian Authority cabinet meeting convened on Wednesday by Yasser Arafat endorsed a proposal floated earlier this week by Israeli defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer for Israel to begin pulling out of Gaza if the PA undertakes to curb terrorism. If reformed PA security structures show themselves willing and able to stop attacks on Israelis, the Gaza would be emulated in other West Bank cities. The Palestinian leadership, in giving qualified support to the proposal, proclaimed it as a basis for realizing their demand that Israel withdraw to its September 2000 positions, before the outbreak of the current intifada. But the Palestinians want guarantees that implementing the plan in Gaza would result in its extension to the West Bank, and insist the plan be implemented simultaneously in Gaza and in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It was over the latter point that negotiations broke down Wednesday night, but both sides are plainly concerned to see some progress away from their current violent impasse.

Ben Eliezer's proposals reflect mounting alarm in the Israeli public that tough military action has failed to stem the tide of terror attacks. Fourteen Israelis were killed in a 24-hour period over the weekend, despite Israel's reoccupation of most of the West Bank's urban areas. Although the Israeli military is looking to respond through measures punishing family members of suicide bombers, the Defense Minister's revival of the longstanding idea of Gaza as a test-bed for truces and peace agreements suggests that the dovish faction of the Israeli government (Ben-Eliezer heads the Labor Party) is signaling its desire to renew some form of peace process with the Palestinian Authority — notwithstanding the reservations of the hawkish faction of the Bush administration, which in the person of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on Tuesday warned against any dealings with the PA, let alone restoring its control over territory.

If the failure of force to relieve Israel's burgeoning economic and security crisis has prompted renewed efforts at dialogue with the PA — despite the fact that Yasser Arafat remains in charge — then the wider concerns of the Bush administration, particularly Iraq, may compel Washington to do the same. Despite Rumsfeld's outburst, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are due to meet a PA delegation on Thursday to discuss security, political reform and the humanitarian crisis in Palestinian territories. And while the delegation does not include PA leader Yasser Arafat, it consists of officials appointed and mandated by him. "Where do you think I come from, from Mars?" delegate Saeb Erekat told journalists in Washington, Wednesday. "I am part of President Arafat's leadership."

Warnings by even its most amenable Arab allies against attacking Iraq while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains on the boil may be prompting the Bush administration to avoid allowing its own desire to be rid of Arafat become an obstacle to progress. But the fact that a figure as influential as Rumsfeld was willing to go on record so strongly at odds with administration policy over Israeli settlements in the occupied territories — and even the very designation of those territories as occupied — suggests that the administration's Middle East policy is likely to remain a cacophony of divergent voices, thereby diminishing its impact.

Gaza-first may, however, be the most palatable starting point for an Israeli government sharply divided over the terms of a political solution with the Palestinians and whether to resume relations with the PA. The dusty strip of Mediterranean coastline populated mostly by Palestinian refugees holds little sentimental value to even the most ardent Zionists, and many of Sharon's supporters vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state in the West Bank tend to acknowledge that it might be an inevitability in Gaza. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza is separated from Israel by a border fence that has, for the most part, kept terrorists from reaching Israeli cities. Its settler population of under 5,000 is concentrated into two large, defensible blocs, and Israel has refrained from repeating its wholesale invasion of the West Bank in Gaza. And Arafat, bottled up in Ramallah, won't be able to dance a victory jig in the wake of the retreating Israeli tanks.

Ben-Eliezer would also like to use a "Gaza-first" cease-fire as an opportunity to evacuate more isolated settlements there. Such a move has been advocated by the Israeli military for logistical reasons, and by the Labor Party as a means of showing ordinary Palestinians that Israel is willing to address their sharpest grievance in exchange for an end to violence. But Sharon has long been a champion of the settlement movement, and has until now sharply rejected the idea of retreat even from the most isolated settlements in Gaza.

The plan raises divisions aplenty on the Palestinian side, too. Those under curfew in the West Bank cities will see little to cheer in a "Gaza-first" cease-fire, and even Arafat's own cabinet was divided over whether to accept Ben Eliezer's offer. Gaza is a stronghold of Hamas, whose political standing continues to grow at the expense of Arafat's own Fatah movement. The PA's approach to implementing a cease-fire there may depend, in large part, on securing Hamas's agreement to such a step, on the basis that both sides would prefer to avoid a potentially bloody confrontation on the streets. The two Palestinian groups have been negotiating over such an agreement for some time, although the talks were suspended following Israel's assassination of a key Hamas military leader in Gaza City two weeks ago. For Hamas, of course, a cease-fire would be a temporary, tactical move, which they'd be ready to reverse the moment Israel took any action they deemed worthy of retaliation. Unlike the PA whose very survival depends in part on the Americans, Europeans and Arab states, Hamas has the luxury of allowing its actions to be dictated by the sentiment of the Palestinian street, which is unlikely to show much patience for a Gaza-first strategy.

Ben-Eliezer and his allies will want strong U.S. involvement in the new truce initiative, but Rumsfeld's remarks suggest that an influential faction within the Bush administration sees no value in being drawn anew into directly mediating the conflict. And despite's Sharon's reported endorsement of the proposal, Ben-Eliezer himself speaks only for a faction of the Israeli government. Then there's the PA, internally divided over the plan even as its political authority on the Palestinian Street continues to diminish. To call the Gaza-first plan a long-shot is no understatement. But its advocates will likely counter that for now, it may be the only game in town.