Israel Report

January 2003         

The Quartet Plays On and the Terror Continues

By Gerald M. Steinberg - January 9, 2003
More than six months after US President George W. Bush presented his post-Oslo peace plan, nothing has changed on the ground. Yasser Arafat, the PLO and the other factions continue to preach hatred and to support inhuman terror attacks.

But the diplomatic wheels continue to churn, in the form of the Cairo talks between Palestinian factions, the British government's Palestinian "reform" conference, and the Middle East Quartet's "road map."

In theory, this combination could trigger long-awaited breakthroughs to end this terrible conflict. However, in practice, all three efforts seem to be headed for the overflowing dustbin of wishful thinking, providing the illusion of diplomatic movement without the substance.

The Cairo talks reflect a belated but serious Egyptian effort to halt the instability caused by the Palestinian campaign of terrorism.

The initial meetings, involving Arafat's Fatah organization (the core of the PLO) and Hamas, have been expanded to include other terror groups, including Islamic Jihad.

The active involvement of a highly respected representative of the European Union in these talks provides some credibility, but the optimistic predictions are not supported by detailed analysis.
The declared goal is an agreement to end terrorism, but, as usual, the hidden agendas are more important. For Arafat and Fatah, this is a desperate effort to cling to power by forming a tighter coalition with the other groups, while, for Hamas, the goal is to gain recognition and political legitimacy.

Indeed, the invitation to participate in official meetings in Cairo is already a major victory, regardless of the outcome. For all the participants, the imminent removal of Saddam Hussein has led to fear of American pressure on the sponsors of Palestinian terrorism in Damascus, Beirut and Teheran.

And in Egypt, whose influence in Washington has declined precipitously, these talks are seen as a way to regain lost status, not only with the US, but also in the wider Arab world.

Together, these pressures might produce a "cease-fire," terminology borrowed from warfare, and inappropriate for a unilateral campaign of terror.

However, the chances for the successful implementation must be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Arafat has declared many phony cease-fires and his promises are now worthless.

By carefully decentralizing the planning of suicide bombings, the PLO leader has created "plausible deniability," claiming to have no role in such attacks.

In the absence of sustained action on the ground, individual terrorists and small cells can continue to carry out attacks, while Arafat tries to avoid responsibility.
Also, loopholes permitting attacks on "settlers" and "soldiers" would strip the substantive impact of an agreement.

INDEED, WHILE the Cairo talks continue, so do the inhuman attacks, as shown in this week's double bombing in Tel Aviv. The relative calm and absence of attacks for a short period was entirely the result of the IDF's actions, and the dispatch of suicide bombers did not stop.

The race to claim responsibility has not changed, and leaders, including Arafat and Sheikh Yassin, continue to declare their support for martyrdom, hatred and violence.

In the face of this very visible evidence, Israelis will view any declaration from Cairo, by itself, with great skepticism.

In this context, as long as Arafat is in charge, declarations and agreements will have little impact.

As Bush declared in his June 24 speech, fundamental Palestinian political reform and the removal of the terrorist leadership are the first necessary steps in breaking the pattern.

To date, however, no actions have been taken to implement this goal.

The British government's proposed conference on "Palestinian reform" embodies the right idea, but in practice, it will help Arafat to recover lost prestige and power by allowing him to appoint the participants and control events.

In a recent meeting on post-Saddam Iraq, also held in London, Iraq's totalitarian ruler was not consulted or asked to nominate the delegates. On this basis, the Israeli government's strong opposition to the proposed conference, which was emphasized following Sunday's double terror attack in Tel Aviv, is understandable and fully justified.

Similarly, the gaps between the objectives and the likely outcome of the latest Middle East peace "road map" are even greater.

On paper, the goal of a peaceful settlement to the conflict, based on security for Israel and the creation of a stable and prosperous Palestinian state, is certainly worthy. The carefully defined performance milestones for ending terror and incitement, and monitored or enforced by an international force, are also important improvements on the naive ambiguity of Oslo.

In practice, however, such grand plans are rarely implemented. In Lebanon, the promises from the UN and European Union to disarm Hizbullah following Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 were empty words, and the situation now is far more dangerous.
The EU, like the UN, is strong when it comes to declarations, but extremely weak when action is required.

In the Palestinian case, to be effective, a massive US force would be required to halt the violence. Otherwise, Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities will lead to escalation, rather than the reverse, and Palestinian sovereignty will result in another failed terrorist state.

In other words, the grand plans of the "road map" need to brought back to reality.

Perhaps this analysis is overly pessimistic, and something positive can come out of these three diplomatic initiatives. However, given the long history of naivete and failure, the burden of proof is on their sponsors and participants.

Without a significant breakthrough on the ground, and not merely in flowery declarations, the demands that Israel halt actions against terrorism in order to encourage these initiatives will endanger many more lives.

This approach is both unrealistic and fundamentally immoral.

The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post


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