With Palestinian terror groups generally committed to a lull in the fighting with Israel and Arab countries debating normalizing ties with the Jewish state, some in Israel see signs that the 57-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict finally may be winding down.
However, despite a hesitant optimism, certain factors suggest that an end to the conflict still appears far off:
• The current cease-fire is fragile and could unravel at any moment.
• The terrorist Palestinian organization, Hamas, which opposes peace with Israel, is getting stronger.
• Most Arab countries still oppose normalization until Israel withdraws from all of what the Arabs consider “occupied territory.”
• Israel insists that the Palestinians fulfill their promise to disband terrorist groups before the peace process advances, a commitment the Palestinians show no inclination to meet.
On the Israeli side, opponents of withdrawal, both within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party and further to the right, are trying to torpedo the disengagement plan.
The lull — or tahdiya, as the Palestinians call it — was announced March 17 in Cairo, after a meeting under Egyptian aegis of all the main Palestinian militias with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The bottom line is that the terrorist groups say there will be no more terror attacks against Israel, at least until the end of 2005.
But the truce is heavily conditional. For the quiet to continue, the Palestinians demand that Israel meet a number of conditions:
• Halt assassinations or arrests of wanted terrorists.
• Release Palestinian prisoners.
• Refrain from building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
• Stop “Judaizing” eastern Jerusalem.
A six-point document released after the Cairo parley also reiterated the Palestinians’ strategic goals: Establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and securing a right for Palestinian refugees to return to homes and property they abandoned in Israel more than half a century ago. The document makes no mention of a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully next to Israel and offers no hint of compromise over the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
If the strong, heavily conditional wording was designed to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to come aboard, it succeeded. But it also gives the militias a range of pretexts for returning to violence whenever they see fit.
The Israeli assessment is that the lull probably will hold until after this summer’s planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, despite the possibility of intermittent rogue attacks.
What happens next is anybody’s guess, Israeli analysts say. It will depend to a large extent on how the new relationship being forged between Abbas’ secular Fatah movement and the powerful fundamentalist groups plays out.
In the long term, Israeli analysts say, the fact that the radicals have decided to join the political process is even more significant than the lull in violence. Hamas boycotted the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 1996, but now the group says it will run in elections scheduled for July.
Hamas already has had some significant successes in municipal and university balloting. In local elections in January, it won 70 percent of the councils it contested. Last week, it won 25 of 41 seats in student elections at Hebron University.
Both Israeli and Palestinian pundits predict a strong showing by Hamas in July parliamentary elections. They say Hamas never has been stronger, and that the election could well be fought over socioeconomic issues, rather than political, with Hamas picking up a strong anti-establishment vote that works against Fatah.
Writing in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, Alex Fishman maintained that Hamas could win enough seats to virtually dictate the Palestinian political agenda.
“Central Fatah people are really concerned about the Hamas momentum: They say that ‘unless something dramatic happens, 70 percent of the delegates Gaza sends to parliament will be Hamas people. Abu Mazen will have to dance to their tune,'” he wrote, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. Danny Rubinstein, chief Arab affairs analyst for the newspaper, Ha’aretz, takes a similar view.
“East Jerusalem people say the public is angry at Fatah activists who have not been serving the public but rather handing out perks to cronies,” Rubinstein wrote. “The way to punish Fatah, they say, is by voting Hamas.”
If Hamas does gain a good measure of political power, the question is how it will use it. Will it become more moderate and responsible, accepting the need for a two-state solution with coexistence with Israel and a practical solution to the refugee issue? Or will it radicalize the entire Palestinian movement, rendering peacemaking virtually impossible?
Those could be the key questions in Israeli-Palestinian politics for years to come.
Israeli generals and politicians envisage more immediate problems. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, is suspicious of the motives behind the lull.
“The militias want the lull, but see it as a time to regroup and rearm before the fighting resumes, without waiving their strategic goals,” he recently told businessmen in northern Israel.
Sharon has described the lull as a “positive first step,” but added that for “progress in the diplomatic process, the terrorist organizations will not be able to continue existing as armed militias.” In other words, Sharon insists that Abbas fulfill the Palestinian commitment to disarm terrorist groups, while Abbas prefers to try to co-opt them politically. The result could be deadlock.
In an attempt to break the looming logjam, Jordan’s King Abdullah is proposing some bold, out-of-the-box thinking. The normal Arab sequencing in peacemaking with Israel should be reversed, Abdullah says.
Until now, Arab proposals have insisted that Israel withdraw from occupied territory before the Arabs normalize ties, but Abdullah argues that if the Arabs first normalized ties, Israel would feel secure enough to withdraw from territory. Not only that, he believes that if the Arabs made such a collective gesture, there would be enormous international pressure on Israel to pullout of Arab territory.
Behind the scenes, some Arab and Muslim countries appeared ready to buy into Abdullah’s ideas. But Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians were instrumental in preventing the proposal from being raised at an Arab League summit in Algiers in late March.
The key to a breakthrough in peacemaking therefore remains what it always has been: progress on the Palestinian track. And despite the lull in violence, political differences between Israelis and Palestinians seem as acute as ever.
For example, where Sharon sees the “road map” peace plan leading to an interim Palestinian state, Abbas wants to move straight to full-fledged Palestinian statehood and a final territorial settlement with Israel. Even if Sharon were ready to make that leap, would an empowered Hamas allow Abbas to make the offer?
Sharon and Abbas are due to meet separately with President Bush in the United States next month. After those talks, perhaps the way forward will become a little clearer.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report