Washington may have to drag both sides in the Middle East dispute to the peace table
BLOOD ON A ROAD MAP
Washington may have to drag both sides in the Middle East dispute to the peace table
WHAT IS BEHIND the recent wave of terror attacks to hit Israel? The country’s military intelligence believes they were carefully orchestrated, designed to torpedo any chance of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians or any advancement on the road map to peace proposed by the Bush administration. They think Iran, by supplying Hamas with weapons and cash, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, are behind the attacks. Iran, because it does not want American policy to advance; Arafat, because he wants the new Palestinian prime minister and his own de facto successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to fail.
But officials with the Israeli General Secret Service, which is responsible for internal security and is at the forefront of the war on terror, believe there was nothing new in the
attacks. They happened because Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives found a crack in Israel’s security system and managed to get through. If there is an explosives belt, a willing suicide bomber and someone ready to drive him or her to a target, an attack will take place. There are an average of about 60 “hot warnings”—firm intelligence reports of pending attacks—a week. The five bombings that took place on May 17,18 and 19, GSS agents assert, were simply those that were not stopped.
Military intelligence and the GSS have been at odds since the start of this current war with the Palestinians, which began in September 2000. The military claims Arafat
is pulling the strings, while the GSS officials say he is no longer in control of events. There is, however, one point they do agree on—a high degree of skepticism that Abbas is up to the job of cracking down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or that he can effectively circumvent Arafat, who won’t let go of power. They claim he is not assertive enough and does not have the political support within his own cabinet to take drastic steps against the radicals behind the bombings.
This aside, Abbas’s appointment has created a new dynamic that, in spite of the pessimism, may yet lead to some change in the rhythm of the dance of death that Israel and the Palestinians have been engaged in. Despite a suicide attack in Hebron on May 17, Abbas held a long-scheduled meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. While the two did not exactly exchange bear hugs, their interaction was polite and gentlemanly, which in itself is a step forward. Now at least both sides have leaders who, despite all the difficulties, can speak to each other.
Formally, the meeting produced little in good news other than the fact that it took place. And whatever silver lining may have been generated was quickly clouded over when suicide bombers struck again, in a wave of bombings that included attacks on Jerusalem and Afula. Ten innocent people died, bringing the number of Israelis killed since the start of the current violence to 780—a startling total when compared to the Six Day War in 1967, in which 777 Israeli soldiers were killed.
Because of the suicide attacks, and against the judgment of his advisers, Sharon decided to postpone a scheduled trip to the U.S. for a meeting with President George Bush. But Sharon is expected to meet with Bush and Abbas in the Middle East this month where he will give his official response to the road map.
That map, though formally a proposal for ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict and tabled jointly by the U.S., the European Union, the UN and Russia, is very much an American vision. It lays out a process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of 2003. By sometime in 2005, all issues, including the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and control of Jerusalem, are to have been settled, with both sides finally living in peace within permanent borders.
The chances of any of these time frames being met are slim, but at least the road map does put in place a mechanism that, if the violence can be controlled, will allow a slow, painful and careful path toward resolving the conflict. Israel has serious reservations concerning the document. Specifically, before talks can even start, Sharon is demanding that the terror has to stop and that Palestinians have to give up their demand that refugees be allowed to return. And it is no secret that Sharon will do all he can to avoid any kind of freeze on the establishment of new settlements on Palestinian land.
The Palestinians counter that they cannot take effective control of their lives or deal with the radicals behind the suicide bombings as long as Israeli forces are deployed throughout the West Bank and much of Gaza. But Sharon says Israel cannot withdraw from Palestinian areas as long as there are 60 hot warnings a week and until the Palestinians show at least some minimal effort at creating an orderly society where the government rules and not the street.
In Gaza, for example, from where dozens of mortar and rocket attacks have been launched against Israeli towns in the Negev desert, Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s chief security official, has three times as many forces as Hamas does, but has done nothing to rein in the fundamentalist Islamic group or stop the attacks.
If Sharon has his way, the road map will remain a map, and nothing more. He has to walk a fine line between not defying the American president and appeasing hardliners back home, particularly the right wing within his cabinet and among his Likud party’s members in the Knesset, half of whom are against any concessions to the Palestinians. And because of the opposition within his own party, Sharon does not want to tackle the issue of settlements
Nor does Sharon want to withdraw Israeli forces from the West Bank or Gaza, their presence, he feels, being critical to Israel’s security. He does not want to undermine Abbas, but he does not want to rely on him either. And Sharon has no intention of co-operating with the EU or the UN, both of which he considers hostile organizations.
Given that Sharon prefers the status quo and Abbas does not have the strength to change it, the only way for the process to move forward is for the U.S. administration to take a proactive stance that will push both sides out of their entrenched positions. Until now, Washington, because of its preoccupation with Iraq, has not acted forcibly to im-
pose its will. But it now believes there is a window of opportunity with Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was paying subsidies to the families of suicide bombers, out of the equation. And in a conversation with Sharon last week, Bush made it clear the process has to move forward.
Ultimately, Sharon may have another motive, other than American pressure, for taking the road map seriously: the economic situation in Israel. Recent headlines have not been about the peace plan, but rather the increased number of Israelis, 17 in the last few weeks, who have committed suicide because of financial ruin, something the media are describing as a new national phenomenon. The issue has led the national news on television, as well as being the top subject of morning radio talk shows. The country is suffering through an economic recession, its worst since the 1950s, with negative growth registered for the past two years. Foreign investment and tourism have dried up, with no improvement in sight as long as Israel is seen as a batdeground and its streets, unsafe. Sharon knows that somewhere along the line something has to give, as do mainstream Palestinians. These past 2lh years have been a disaster for both sides. It is, however, the old chicken-and-egg problem. What comes first, Israeli concessions or an end to terror? Ultimately, it will be up to Bush to decide. I?]
Hirsh Goodman was editor of the Jerusalem Report for nine years and has co-authored two books on the Arab-lsraeli conflict. He is now senior fellow specializing in security issues at the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
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