A drama without beginning, end


Mideast: In the past nine months, 500 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, but neither side has yet to take the first step toward peace called for in a May pact.

January 05, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - If the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were a movie, patrons would have fled the theater months ago and demanded refunds, having concluded that the twisting drama might never end.

In fact, the actors have yet to figure out how to begin.

For the past nine months, during which more than 500 people have been killed, the two sides have exchanged bullets and bombs but have yet to take the first step outlined in a framework for peace that each camp endorsed in May.

New proposals emerging in recent weeks are designed merely to get the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, to start negotiating under the terms of a comprehensive plan prepared by former Sen. George J. Mitchell in the spring.

Many of the initiatives are coming from Israel's government, which rarely speaks with one voice. Sharon insists that Arafat is "irrelevant." Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is negotiating with Arafat's senior aides. And Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, wants to speak at the Palestinian parliament and propose a yearlong truce.

It is a drama that will inevitably lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, most analysts say, but there is no director to see it through. There is only a supporting cast, each member vying for center stage while the exhausted audience suffers.

"It is good evidence that nothing is really going on," says Danny Rubinstein, a leading political columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "It's a real crisis and a lot of confusion. When people have no idea what to do, they come up with a lot of unusual ideas."

The gunbattles erupted 15 months ago, but the first real attempt at peace began with the Mitchell report. When both sides had trouble putting its recommendations into effect, the United States sent its CIA director, George Tenet, who devised a work plan.

That also failed.

When the violence threatened to affect the U.S. actions in Afghanistan, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni arrived as another mediator. His first visit produced no results, but he has returned this week to try again.

Sharon says he will resume talks with Arafat only after seven days have passed without a single shot or stone thrown on the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The Israeli left is clamoring for Peres to leave the government, arguing that Sharon uses him to pretend he is interested in a peace deal. Peres insists on staying, saying there is a glimmer of hope, and to provide a buffer against the Israeli right, which wants Sharon to destroy the Palestinian Authority.

"All of the actors know their roles and play them out, and as a result, instead of policies, there is only one large theater with lots of decoration," Yossi Sarid, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, writes in Ha'aretz.

The agreed-upon guide to peace is the Mitchell Report, which offers a time line for restarting political negotiations and ending the conflict. It calls for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, followed by a resumption of meetings between each side's security officials.

That is to be followed by a "meaningful cooling-off period," during which Palestinian police are supposed to arrest and disarm militants and Israel is to freeze construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel is also to end its policy of targeted killings, withdraw its troops to their positions of September 2000 and ease restrictions on Palestinian cities. In return, the Palestinian police are to prevent attacks against Israelis and end incitement in the news media and from mosques.

This "cooling-off" period is supposed to last about eight weeks, after which negotiations could resume on issues left over from previous peace accords, including the status of Jerusalem.

Israelis and Palestinians continually blame each other for undermining the scheme outlined by Mitchell. In response, the United States sent the CIA's Tenet to move things along.

He drafted what became known as the Tenet work plan, designed to get Mitchell started. It set similar goals but was more specific in spelling out exactly how steps should be begin.

But Sharon insists that he will not begin following the terms until seven consecutive days of quiet have passed. It is almost an impossible goal, derided by critics, who point out that a single militant can dictate whether negotiations are held.

Despite a substantial drop in violence in the past few weeks, there are isolated incidents - a potshot at an Israeli guard post or stones thrown at a car driven by Jewish settlers. Sharon thus insists that the seven days have not begun.

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