An Israeli-Palestinian lull raises new set of concerns

By Charles A. Radin, 9/21/2003

JERUSALEM -- After two weeks of bombs and bombast, the Middle East suddenly has become almost eerily quiet.

Israel has not stopped hunting and killing Palestinians who arm and dispatch suicide bombers. But it is no longer shooting at the political leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the major extremist groups, after a spate of such assassinations. And the usual vows of ever-greater vengeance from the Palestinians are muted, for now.

Palestinian organizers of terror have not stopped making bombs and smuggling them into Israel. But nothing has blown up since the suicide bombings of a bus stop and a cafe that killed 13 Israelis on Sept. 9. And the Israeli leadership's vows of never-ending war against terror also are a few decibels lower, for now.

The sides may yet plunge over the cliff that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned awaited them if the US-backed ''road map'' to Middle East peace died. But officials and analysts on both sides, and in foreign missions to the area, say that for the moment at least, the adversaries have paused at the edge of the abyss, perhaps contemplating Powell's words.

Much has changed over the two weeks. And the changes have profound implications for Israelis and Palestinians alike, they say. But there is widespread confusion about what the changes mean, and about how to react to them:

* The United States, facing a deepening quagmire in Iraq, a looming presidential campaign, and the apparent collapse of its Middle East road map, appears to have little energy for a renewed initiative here.

* Yasser Arafat, fully back in the driver's seat on the Palestinian side after forcing out an independent-minded prime minister who tried to challenge him, is making the US-Israeli attempt to ignore him as ''irrelevant'' look more ridiculous by the day. But he also is making the formation of an effective new Palestinian government impossible.

* Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, torn between the US government on one side and the Israeli right on the other, is rapidly losing his reputation for cool, firm leadership. His government's policy on such major security issues as the barrier fence and the policy toward Arafat vacillates wildly: One day his ministers talk of killing Arafat and building the fence deep into the West Bank; the next they say that they are not considering killing the Palestinian leader and that they will accede to US wishes on the barrier.

''Many people, including the government of Israel, don't have any idea what's going on,'' said a senior Israeli diplomat with strong contacts in the United States. ''The Americans, facing the black hole of Iraq, have forgotten the Middle East. The president senses a serious political threat, and will not entangle the United States in Iran, Korea, or Israel'' before the 2004 election, ''nor will he willingly fight with the evangelicals or the religious Jews.''

Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side appears willing to have a cease-fire on terms the other would accept. The Israelis insist that the Palestinians must dismantle Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups that mount terror attacks. The Palestinians demand that Israel stop hunting down militants and suspend construction of the barrier.

Eran Lerman, a former deputy director of intellidence in Israel, said Arafat and his security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, knew that the cease-fire they offered last week would be rejected by Israel, and that the offer had other purposes: to get Arafat back into negotiations, to show the Palestinian public that its leaders were seeking the cease-fire the public desires, and to show the Israelis and Americans a hint of movement.

In previous cease-fire talks, the Palestinian leaders spoke only of making best efforts to prevent terror attacks. This time, they promised absolutely that attacks would cease, though they remained unwilling to dismantle terrorist organizations.

The current calm, Lerman said, indicates that ''there is some kind of understanding between Palestinian Authority and Hamas, that now is not the time to carry this kind of campaign any further. [Arafat] is under considerable pressure, and Hamas is getting a message not only from the West but from the Arab world.

''All of this could actually lead to a resumption of activity under the road map,'' he said. ''There will be no other game in town for the immediate future,'' and the new Palestinian government expected to be announced next week ''will provide cover'' for the US and Israel ''to play as if Arafat is not there.''

There are hints of movement on the Israeli side as well.

In the past two instances in which Palestinian militants were killed, according to Palestinian sources, Israeli troops took care to evacuate the area of civilians and to offer the targets -- who were field operatives, not political leaders -- a chance to surrender. Firing began from the militants' side.

In earlier operations, Israeli helicopters and jets fired on political leaders of Hamas without warning, sometimes killing civilians in the process.

What's more, on Thursday Israeli President Moshe Katsav did what no Israeli leader has done for more than a year: He spoke of Arafat in encouraging, even hopeful, terms.

''If Arafat works toward a cease-fire and dismantles terrorist organizations' infrastructures, he could win worldwide praise and international recognition,'' Katsav said at a press conference. ''It could enable the resumption of the diplomatic process.''

But what Israelis and Americans see as the most important ingredient for moving back to talks -- formation of a new Palestinian government with some pretension to independence from Arafat and the old guard of the Palestinian national movement -- is proving difficult.

Early last week, Arafat spit in the face of the likely new interior minister for suggesting that the Palestinians comply with their road map commitment to unify security forces under Palestinian Authority command. Fierce infighting in Arafat's Fatah movement over composition of the new Cabinet continues, as do armed confrontations between Palestinian Authority security officers and Hamas members in Gaza.

''There is a conflict between the youth leaders of the movement and Fatah Central Committee,'' said Abdel Fattah Hamayel, a minister in the government of Mahmoud Abbas that was ousted by Arafat. Hamayel is not expected to be part of the new government. ''The central committee does not want to open the door. . . for a new generation in Fatah'' that, he said, would have a ''more realistic'' approach to the conflict with Israel.

A Western diplomat whose nation is deeply involved in efforts to restart the peace process said the attempt to work around Arafat and the simultaneous recognition that he must be dealt with at some level make current conditions ''the same game as 10 or 12 years ago,'' at the start of the Madrid meetings that led to the Oslo peace process.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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