Avoiding more violence
The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Friday has still not shaken up the diplomatic process, which has remained frozen since it was initiated with pomp and circumstance at Aqaba two weeks ago.
The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Friday has still not shaken up the diplomatic process, which has remained frozen since it was initiated with pomp and circumstance at Aqaba two weeks ago. The watershed at Aqaba was when Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas declared their preference for a diplomatic solution over military force. However this has remained only a static signpost on the road map, lacking any thrust of its own to move forward.
The Palestinian side is mainly responsible for the freeze. The terrorist organizations continue to carry out attacks in the territories and in Israel at every opportunity, and especially in connection with diplomatic events like Powell's visit, or when there appears to be some hope of moving forward. They murder and injure civilians, not distinguishing between men, women and children. This is not just base murder but a challenge to the policy of President George Bush.
Faced with this offensive, Israel had to exercise maximum restraint - resist, but avoid a major operation; contain and strike only at those on the way to killing and avoid striking at targets or assassinating senior Palestinian officials in the middle of densely populated areas. Israel can continue with this restraint for a short time, and this only if the activities of the IDF and the security services prevent many more and much larger attacks. If Abbas does not play his part in preventing attacks, domestic pressure on the Sharon government will increase for a counteroffensive that is not restricted to defensive operations.
By declaring that if terrorism continues there will be no progress on the diplomatic front, Sharon is pushing Bush to pressure Abbas to end the attacks by Hamas and the other organizations. Ending, in this context, translates into an energetic effort against these organizations, if the talks between the Palestinian Authority and the opposition groups fail. It would then be time to disarm the activists and return them to their original status as social organizations and political parties. The question of the essence of the cease-fire is important and may determine the fate of the relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as the diplomatic process continues. However deliberations over this question can be put off until there is an end to terrorist attacks. If this does not happen, the whole process may collapse.
As an alternative to violent confrontation, Abbas is offering the Hamas a share in power. This is an internal Palestinian matter, even if Israel is interested in having any future Palestinian government in Ramallah and Gaza seek a compromise, and incorporating extremist elements in power may prevent such a trend.
In 1996, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, and the presidency, were held only after the IDF pulled out of all the cities in the West Bank, excluding Hebron, and Hamas suicide bombings were put on hold until after the elections. This time the attacks continue, the Palestinians hesitate to take responsibility for areas the IDF vacates, and Israel is having a hard time waiting for the maturing of the negotiations between the moderates and the extremists among the Palestinian community.
In the balance now hang Bush's vision for the Middle East, the Abbas government and the security of Israelis. If the diplomatic process initiated at Aqaba does not gain renewed impetus, both sides may withdraw to their previous positions, ready for yet another round of violence.