New Year; Old Problems

For Israel and the Palestinians, 2001 was a year of failure, collapse and escalating violence. Failure of international diplomacy, collapse of mutual trust, violence that claimed 200 Israeli lives and 574 Palestinian.

Miguel Angel Moratinos, the European Union’s veteran Middle East troubleshooter, called it “annus horribilis,” a terrible year. “We are,” he told foreign correspondents, “in a very tragic situation. We cannot be sure it won’t deteriorate more.”

The best hope for 2002, as Moratinos saw it, was that both sides were sick and tired of the bloodshed. “A silent majority, of Palestinians and Israelis, want to put an end to it,” the Spanish diplomat said. “Both sides agree that there is no military solution.”

Opinion polls published last weekend seem to bear him out. Both Israelis and Palestinians want a political solution, but they remain confused about how to get there.

One Palestinian research institute found 71 percent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians favoring an immediate return to negotiations and 60 percent supporting Yasser Arafat’s Dec. 16 cease-fire call. But another poll logged 54.2 percent wanting the intifada to continue, while 46.3 percent believed “the peace process is the best thing the Palestinians can get.”

On the other side of the barricade, a Ma’ariv poll found 54 percent of Israelis supporting accelerated peace efforts (up 12 percent from the previous poll). Only 27 percent urged all-out war on Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. The relative calm that prevailed in the last two weeks of the old year apparently steadied nerves.

Also, by 61 percent to 33 percent, Israelis backed a moot plan under which Israel would recognize a Palestinians state (in the areas currently under Arafat’s control) after six week’s of complete cease-fire, with negotiations resuming after that for a final settlement of the conflict. Yet barely half (49 percent) gave their blessing to the talks, between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Ahmed Qurei (better known as Abu Ala), who formulated the plan. Peres, it seems, makes them uneasy.

Neither side trusts the other. Only 26 percent of the Israeli sample thought the Peres-Abu Ala proposals would be acceptable to the Palestinians. Just over 50 percent of Palestinians thought Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was plotting to topple the Palestinian Authority and Arafat.

Optimism is hard to come by. Israeli and Palestinian doves are striving to keep lines open. Peres wants to show the Palestinians that Sharon’s hybrid coalition packs a carrot as well as a stick. Yet he knows that the Palestinians will continue to hold their fire only if they see tangible progress on the diplomatic front.

Sharon has given his foreign minister a grudging green light to go on talking, but only if the agenda is limited to security. However unconvincingly, the Likud prime minister still insists that Israel is not negotiating under fire. If and when there are concrete political negotiations, Sharon says he will conduct them, not the wily, flexible Peres.

The prime minister is constantly looking over his right shoulder. Hard-line ministers, like Benny Elon and Avigdor Lieberman, are urging him to dismiss Peres. And behind them, as Sharon is all too well aware, lurks Lieberman’s old boss, Binyamin Netanyahu. Uninhibited by office, the former prime minister is rapidly re-establishing himself as the darling of the Jewish right in Israel and in the United States.

His admirers seem to have forgotten that less than three years ago, Netanyahu was a spent force, abandoned first by his own ministers, then by the voters. The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once memorably said a week was “a long time in politics.” Three years are even more so. Especially these three years. Sharon has cause for concern. The Ma’ariv poll gave him an 11-point lead over Netanyahu, but Netanyahu was five points higher among right-wing voters.

Yet in the nine months since he defeated Labor’s Ehud Barak, Sharon has proved himself a more cautious, reflective leader than either friend or foe expected. The old war-horse has not reconquered the West Bank. He has massacred no Palestinian civilians. Somehow, he has held together the widest, most heterogeneous coalition in Israeli history — a coalition that the 75 percent of the voters want to see continue.

So far, Sharon is speaking out of both sides of his mouth: authorizing Peres to talk to Abu Ala, yet assuring the hawks that they will achieve nothing. The test will come if and when the negotiators do reach a deal, as they did at Oslo in 1993, and as the indefatigable Peres did with the King Hussein in 1987. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir vetoed the Jordanian understanding; Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embraced the Palestinian.

Sharon would prefer not to have to choose. Or to have Arafat make the choice for him by disowning Abu Ala, as he did at the Camp David summit in July 2000 and at Taba six months later. Gilead Sher, Barak’s confidant who conducted two months of secret diplomacy with Abu Ala in Sweden before Camp David, says Arafat prefers not to know what his subordinates are discussing. That way he can repudiate everything they have agreed.

Maybe he and Sharon have more in common than we imagined.