Despite Talks, Few Signs of Peace in the Mideast

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Palestinian police take cover behind barricades as they come under fire

Who'd want to be George Mitchell? Having spent the best part of half a decade patiently cobbling together a Northern Ireland peace treaty that has never moved far from the verge of collapse, he now has the thankless task of picking up the pieces of the failed Middle East peace process. The former U.S. senator is heading a commission of European heavyweights charged with investigating the root causes of the current violence in the West Bank and Gaza, and recommending remedies. The urgency, and complexity, of their task was underlined Wednesday when four Palestinian policemen died in a predawn shootout with Israeli troops at the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, while a Hamas member was shot dead in Hebron. As ever, the circumstances of each incident differed according to which side was relating them.

Diplomats, not detectives

Perhaps the presence of monitors on the ground would help them form an assessment — commissioners Mitchell, former U.S. senator Warren Rudman, European defense supremo and former NATO secretary general Javier Solana, former Turkish president Suleiman Demirel and Norwegian foreign minister Thorbjorn Jagland aren't about to don flak jackets and head into the battle zone — but the commission's priorities appear to be more diplomatic than investigative. Mitchell's team has spent the last two days meeting with Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, searching for solutions that will reduce the level of violence.

In that sense, their very presence is an acknowledgment of the failure of the Oslo peace process and its mechanisms. Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met U.S. envoy Dennis Ross in Morocco overnight, the idea that Israelis and Palestinians will rush to conclude a deal before President Clinton leaves office on January 20, and before Israel goes to the polls the following month, may be little more than wishful thinking.

Bibi comes back

The same Palestinian and Arab public opinion that restrained Arafat from accepting the deal offered him at Camp David has hardened considerably following 10 weeks of violence in which more than 300, mostly Palestinian, lives have been lost. And with the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu enjoying a double-digit lead in opinion polls, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is unlikely to sweeten his offer. Netanyahu moved a step closer to overcoming legal obstacles to his candidacy Wednesday when Israel's parliament voted to allow any citizen to contest the special election triggered by Barak's resignation. The bill must pass two more votes to become law, and replace the current statute that restricts such an election to members of the current parliament, which excludes Netanyahu.

Fear is the key

Netanyahu's popularity may be the surest sign that Israel is in no mood to make peace right now. He has already begun campaigning, playing on Israeli anxiety in the face of the renewed Palestinian intifada to charge that Barak's peace efforts have compromised Israel's security, and promising a return to his peace-through-strength philosophy. It may be a measure of the depth of their fears that many of the same Israeli voters who drove Netanyahu out of office only 18 months ago for his failure to make meaningful progress toward peace with the Palestinians are now flocking back to his corner.

Many of those same voters know that clamping down harder on Palestinians doesn't solve the problem, and ultimately they'll be back at the peace table. And Israel's fractious and complicated parliamentary system allows a prime minister to win by a landslide but even then struggle to maintain a workable majority government (as Barak did). Now, Netanyahu looks set to return to the same booby-trapped office. But even having to govern via a traditionally fractious Israeli coalition government won't stop Netanyahu from keeping his foot firmly jammed on the brake of the peace process. Or at least, proceeding only in Bibi steps.