Bethlehem Battles Dampen Peace Hopes

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A Palestinian who tried to outflank an Israeli checkpoint is held by police

Ehud Barak's reelection campaign is not going well. Conventional wisdom has it that a peace breakthrough with the Palestinians is the key to the Israeli prime minister's chances of winning the election he was forced to call last week, and Monday's fierce gun battles in Bethlehem and Ramallah were a reminder of just how elusive such a deal may be. Israeli helicopter gunships fired on a Palestinian neighborhood in Bethlehem after Israeli troops guarding the Jewish shrine of Rachel's Tomb were fired on, while the Ramallah firefight capped a weekend of clashes that followed the mistaken killing by Israeli snipers of a Palestinian construction worker.

Mitchell Inquiry

The latest incidents come despite renewed efforts at implementing previous cease-fire agreements, which last week had more optimistic spokesmen on both sides cautiously chewing over prospects for resuming talks. Worse news for Barak's reelection effort may be the go-ahead he gave over the weekend for an international commission of inquiry into the current violence to begin its work — the Israelis had previously insisted that the commission should wait until after the current violence abates, but under encouragement from President Clinton Barak agreed in principle that it should begin work immediately. The commission, constituted by Clinton as part of the Sharm El Sheik cease-fire agreement, is headed by former senator George Mitchell, and includes a number of senior European officials. Its mandate is to probe the causes of current violence, and the President believes that its presence can help foster a climate for renewed talks.

Danger for Israel

The danger for Barak, of course, goes beyond the fact that Israelis are uncomfortable with the very idea of subjecting the conduct of their security forces to foreign scrutiny. Inquiries by such respected human rights agencies as Amnesty International and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights have harshly criticized Israel for responding with excessive brutality to the Palestinian uprising, and Senator Mitchell's inquiry when it delivers its report in March may create pressure for Washington to be more critical than it has been until now of the conduct of its Israeli ally. That could easily have the effect of driving Israeli voters toward the right-wing Likud party, whose leaders, such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, have shown far less sensitivity toward American concerns than has Barak.

Yasser Arafat, who has found his diplomatic leverage expanded by the 10-week intifada — and, arguably, by Barak's reliance on a peace agreement to win reelection — has even higher expectations for the Mitchell inquiry. The Palestinian leader is hoping it will endorse his call for an international peacekeeping or monitoring force to be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. That's an idea to which Israel remains hostile, and for obvious reasons: Arafat wants peacekeepers deployed around Palestinian populations to make it more difficult for Israel to annex land if a Palestinian state is unilaterally declared. Of course the best-case scenario for the optimists on both sides is that such a state's boundaries are defined by mutual consent in negotiations. But in the Middle East these days, optimism may be in short supply.