Why the Mideast Truce Breaks New Ground

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Plenty can, and very likely will go wrong in the latest Israeli-Palestinian truce efforts, but Monday's spectacle of Israeli tanks rolling out of Gaza and uniformed Palestinian Authority security personnel taking charge in their wake could nonetheless prove to be deeply significant. It marks a first move toward a return to the pre-September 2000 status quo after almost three years of trying by successive U.S. administrations and Arab and European diplomats. The current truce is based on agreements between Israel, the U.S., the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian militant organizations actually waging the armed intifada that began in September 2000. That's an important step, because it means that the many of the very groups who have spent the past decade trying to violently sabotage the 1993 Oslo accords are now finally seeking a nonviolent solution.

Of course, Israel has not negotiated with Hamas — that's a prospect equally abhorrent to both parties. Israel's primary negotiating partner has been the Bush Administration. The PA, in the person of prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, has negotiated on the one hand with the U.S. and Israel, and on the other hand with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and the smaller political-military organizations of the Palestinian Left. The formal agreements may be between Israel and Abbas, but Abbas has little independent political authority and has, instead, operated as an intermediary between the Israelis and Americans on the one hand, and on the other hand those Palestinians to whom they refuse to speak directly — PA president Yasser Arafat, Fatah militia leader Marwan Barghouti (currently on trial in Tel Aviv on terror charges), and the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Abbas and Dahlan pointedly refused to accept security responsibility in Gaza without the consent of the militants — in the form of a hudna, the Islamic term for a temporary cease-fire, in which those organizations have undertaken to halt all attacks on Israelis for three, and in Fatah's case six, months.

The hudna is a source of alarm rather than comfort for the Israelis. They insist, with American backing, that the roadmap requires not an agreement by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade to refrain from terror attacks, but instead the systematic dismantling of these groups. Israel is insisting on nothing less than an all-out "war on terror" by the PA, but Abbas is both unable and unwilling to use force against the militants for fear of starting a Palestinian civil war he would likely lose. Instead, the PA hopes to draw these groups into a unified national Palestinian leadership, coopting their fighters into the PA security services and giving their political leaders a stake in the pursuit of Palestinian statehood along the lines envisaged in the roadmap. The idea of Abbas making common cause with an organization that currently rejects Israel's right to exist and which pioneered suicide bombing as a political tactic deepens Israeli anxiety over just where the roadmap is leading. But Abbas is dealing with the reality that Hamas may now be the most popular Palestinian organization in Gaza and a significant political presence in the West Bank. Hamas may have been something of a radical fringe movement during the salad days of the Oslo peace process, but the intifada has propelled it into the mainstream as an alternative to the PA.

U.S. brokers — currently National Security Adviser Condolleeza Rice — now find themselves forced to adjudicate between Israeli demands for an immediate PA offensive to disarm and dismantle the terror infrastructure of the hudna signatories and the PA's insistence that as long as the hudna holds it should be given time to tame the radicals. The PA has also won U.S. sympathy for its demand that Israel halt construction of its West Bank "security fence" designed to separate Israelis and Palestinians. The reason is that the fence is, to all intents and purposes, a border, and rather than following the internationally recognized (1967) border between Israel and the West Bank, the route mapped out for Sharon's fence instead snakes deep inside the West Bank to surround Palestinians in two enclosures that together constitute less than 50 percent of the territory. The PA complains that the fence is designed to unilaterally draw the boundary between Israel and the Palestinians along lines wholly unacceptable to the latter, and Rice Sunday urged Sharon to "rethink" the security fence. Israeli officials responded that the fence was essential to security, and would go ahead.

Even if mediators find a way around conflicting demands over issues ranging from disarmament to the release of prisoners demanded by the militants, it could easily be undone by the familiar cycle of violence started by a single suicide bomber sent by a renegade cell of any of the radical factions, or by an Israeli assassination attempt on a terror suspect. Still, it marks a renewed recognition of an old truth: After 1,000 days of a bloody intifada that has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 Palestinians and 800 Israelis, the cease-fire — and the "hudna" — mark a tacit recognition that neither side is able to impose a military solution on the conflict. More than two years of Sharon's hard-line tactics have failed to eliminate the terror threat; instead, the hard-line organizations behind it have grown even more influential over Palestinian political affairs. And 1,000 days of Palestinian suicide terror have not only failed to weaken Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza, they have actually strengthened it and all but killed off Labor, the party of Yitzhak Rabin and the traditional peace party, as a serious contender for power in Israel.

Oslo, of course, had been premised on the same recognition, of course, but today it is the hard-line anti-Oslo parties in Israel and among the Palestinians that appear to be acknowledging their inability to enforce a violent solution. There may also, this time, be a third element of conceptual progress: The "roadmap," for all its limitations, appears to reflect a growing recognition in Washington that the era when Israelis and Palestinians could find their own, bilateral route to a peace agreement may have passed, and that resolving the conflict may now increasingly require that the international community be ready not only to adjudicate between Israel and the Palestinians, but also to prescribe to both sides the steps that are required of them.