'The gates to hell'

'The gates to hell'

Positions harden as the Middle East crisis threatens to spiral out of control

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 15 2002
'The gates to hell'

'The gates to hell'

Positions harden as the Middle East crisis threatens to spiral out of control

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 15 2002

'The gates to hell'

Positions harden as the Middle East crisis threatens to spiral out of control

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

It is a frozen moment that now speaks of high hopes, missed opportunities and betrayed expectations. A giggling Yasser Arafat being gently pushed through an open doorway by a grinning Ehud Barak. Bill Clinton, who towers over the two leaders, clearing the threshold for the Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers. It is only 20 months since that photograph was taken at Camp David, but it seems that everything—and at the same time, nothing—has changed in the Middle East. The progress and promise of years of negotiations has dissipated. Violent clashes and suicide bombers, once fading nightmares, are now daily realities. Two of the main players in the drama have been replaced, and the third teeters on the brink.

And just when it appears that things cannot possibly get worse, they do. This past week witnessed a profound escalation in a crisis that now threatens to engulf the entire region. Outraged by a series of suicide attacks by Palestinian extremists during the Passover week, Israel has mounted its largest military operation in two decades. Thousands of Israeli soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery and aircraft, swept into West Bank towns, cities and refugee camps, sparking fierce street battles with Palestinian Authority police and local militias. In Bethlehem, Israeli troops laid siege to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christ is believed to have been born, after Palestinian gunmen took refuge in the shrine.

Dozens have been killed in the fighting throughout the West Bank, and hundreds of Palestinian men have been arrested in

the security crackdown. During the week, Arafat remained confined to his Ramallah offices, while Ariel Sharon openly mused about sending him into exile. There have been clashes with Hezbollah guerrillas along the Lebanese border, while around the world furious crowds demonstrated,

Canada and the World

condemning the Israeli incursions and damning the Bush administrations tepid attempts to bring a halt to the violence.

With the spectre of all-out war now looming on the horizon, all sides in the conflict appear unsure how to chart a path forward. George W. Bush has called for an Israeli withdrawal, while Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to arrive in the Middle East this week on yet another peace mission. But it seems unlikely that Arafat and Sharon, lockstep antagonists for decades, are ready to forge a new understanding between their peoples. Instead, the blame game continues. And what were once stumbling blocks on the road to peace have become insurmountable obstacles.

The Israeli view

A passionate and politicized society, Israel has always been short on consensus. For

decades, power has passed back and forth between left and right, the fortunes of Labour and Likud rising and falling as the electorate rushed to embrace the prospect of peace or the promise of security. Not anymore. Eighteen months of mounting violence have left Israelis dispirited and depressed, but united in a way they have rarely been before. Ariel Sharon swept to power in February, 2001, on the promise of more peace and security; though he has failed to deliver either, few Israelis seem inclined to hold him responsible. “Most people would put the blame squarely on Arafat, not Sharon,” says Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. “They feel the Palestinians chose the path of violence.”

Support for the current military campaign, fuelled by a national sense of outrage over the deadly Passover attacks, is running high: 72 per cent according to a Jerusalem Post poll, with almost a quarter of respondents agreeing that Arafat should be “eliminated”—a euphemism for killed. The response rate among the 30,000 army reservists called to duty is reportedly overwhelming. Central to Israelis’ general disillusionment with the peace process is a strong shared belief that the dovish Barak offered Arafat the deal of the century at Camp David. Everything was on the table, Israelis will tell you—shared control of Jerusalem, the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, a solution to the refugee problem. “Arafat missed a golden opportunity and therefore the frustration,” says Haim Divon, Israel’s ambassador to Canada. “What a waste—the lives, the destruction. If he had carried on with the Camp David process, who knows where we would be today?”

Divon invokes his own memories of the summer of2000, painting a picture of two societies that were rapidly coming together. Israelis were flocking to Gaza to shop for fruit and vegetables because of the low prices, he says. Palestinians were crossing over to Israel in record numbers to work. The promise has been replaced by misery because Arafat and his advisers were unwilling to take up Israel’s outstretched hand, says Divon.

Now the situation has changed. Eighteen months of violence and suicide attacks have permanently altered the political landscape. The current military campaign is making that clear, says the ambassador: “We are sending a message that we are changing the rules of the game. No more exercising restraint. No more giving it another try, hoping that the international community will put pressure on Arafat. The message is that Arafat will have to take personal responsibility for what happens from now on.”

Susser talks of “unilateral redeployment”—a cold peace, backed up by military force. After an eventual withdrawal from the territories, Israel will fall into a defensive posture, he predicts, pulling back its military, closing some isolated Israeli settlements and moving the settlers into larger, more easily protected blocks. Proposals to build a security perimeter around the Palestinians, penning them in with high-tech fences, is already gaining support, he notes. In other words, the promise of security—with or without a peace agreement or ceasefire. “Even accepting that the Israeli offer at Camp David was insufficient, why is their answer shredding Israelis celebrating Passover, bombing Israelis out of existence?” Susser asks. “Both sides have shifted to the extremes. And that makes things extremely difficult for the future.”

The Palestinian view

An occupation without end, a litany of broken promises. If Israelis feel betrayed by the breakdown of the peace process, Palestinians feel cheated. In their view, the historic 1993 Oslo agreement was a binding contract for a free and separate Palestinian homeland, a deal the Israeli government never had any intention of honouring. The road to peace became impassible because of barricades Barak erected and his insufficient offers at Camp David, they say. Now Sharon is busy digging up the pavement. “Sharon wants to undo Oslo by dismantling the Palestinian Authority and militarily defeating the Palestinian people,” says Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinians’ diplomatic representative to the United States. “It is a very dangerous agenda because if he is left free and undeterred, he is literally opening the gates to hell.”

It was Sharon who sparked the intifada,

Canada and the World

says Rahman, repeating an almost universally held Palestinian view. His September, 2000, visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque plaza, also known as the Temple Mount —a holy site for both Jews and Muslims —was a provocation, a declaration of religious war. The Israeli army’s heavyhanded response to the Arab riots that followed aggravated the cycle of revenge and retaliation.

When the subject of the Camp David talks is raised, Rahman sighs and kicks into a well-rehearsed rebuttal of what he calls the “myth” of Israel’s generous offer. There was no written proposal, says Rahman, who participated in the negotiations, only vague promises delivered via U.S. officials. “The maximum they offered was 89 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. The 11 per cent they wanted to keep were all the settlements, the fresh water aquifers, and the borders with Jordan and Egypt. Barak was offering us three ‘Bantustans’ [a reference to the apartheid-era “homelands” in South Africa] surrounded by Israel, linked together by tunnels and bridges.” Jerusalem would have remained a city under Israeli control, with a small Arab “ghetto” surrounded by settlements, he says. The Palestinian refugees were to be fobbed off on third countries without even so much as an apology for the land they lost in 1948, and Israel was proposing a continued military presence in parts of the West Bank. “It was totally unacceptable,” says Rahman.

Bassel Salloukh, a specialist in Mideast politics at Concordia University in Montreal, says the Palestinian people have been deeply disillusioned by the yawning gap between their expectations of peace and the reality they were living in. “What was promised at Oslo, and promised after Oslo, was perpetually being renegotiated,”

says Salloukh. “The culture of peace, the dynamic of peace was gradually reversed. It gave rise to very radical forces in Palestinian society that Arafat can’t control, and in many ways, doesn’t want to control.” Even if Arafat is forced out or removed from power, the situation is unlikely to change, says Salloukh. “The Palestinians aren’t about to accept less than they’ve been offered in the past,” he says.

Rahman says Israel’s demands that Arafat bring an end to the suicide attacks—demands echoed by the U.S., Canada and many other nations—are ludicrous. If Israel with its tanks and troops can’t stop the bombers, how can the Palestinian Authority chairman, a prisoner in his own office, he asks? “This is a way of protest we do not agree with, but we understand why it happens,” Rahman says of the suicide attacks. “You have to change the environment. The solution to this problem is to end Israel’s 54-year military occupation.”

The American view

A pit of quicksand within a morass, deep in the heart of a forbidding swamp. For the world’s one remaining superpower, the Israeli-Palestinian problem is at once its greatest challenge and its most unenviable duty. Bill Clinton, battered by a sex scandal, tried to build a legacy by devoting his considerable charms to brokering a peace deal. He failed, and will instead go down in history as the butt of a million offcolour late-night talk-show jokes. Bush came to office determined not to spend his political capital away from home. Sept. 11 changed that, and now the President is under fire from foreign and domestic critics who charge that his administration’s hands-off approach has allowed the situation to spin out of control.

“Bush thought America was overextended and that Clinton was frittering away his presidential powers in his day-today involvement in the crisis,” says Scott Lasensky, a fellow with the New Yorkbased Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Al Gore. “But now the violence is worse and Clinton is a bit more of a distant memory.” Lasensky says the Sept. 11 attacks have changed all aspects of American foreign policy. Bush wants and needs the goodwill of the Arab world for the next stage of the war on terrorism, widely presumed to be punitive military action against Iraq. The only way to assure that support is to find some way out of the current turmoil. “The No. 1 priority is to dampen the flames,” says Lasensky. A more permanent solution, the kind Clinton gambled on, is probably too much to hope for at this juncture. “There is no magic bullet. We’re not going to send in troops. All we have is moral suasion—-the power of the pulpit.”

Richard Fairbanks, a former ambassador-at-large and peace negotiator to the region, says he sees little room for a solution while Arafat and Sharon remain in power. “The most we can hope for is exhaustion,” he notes. “A feeling that the terror has gone too far, an understanding to let daily life go on.” Those who criticize the United States for its failure to broker, or impose, a peace settlement fail to recognize how intractable the problems are and how deep the antipathy runs, says Fairbanks, now a member of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think-tank. “If anyone has a brilliant idea as to how to pull everybody back from the brink, that would be useful,” he says. “But simply beating up on the U.S. for not doing it well enough is not particularly helpful.” EH