Israel's seizure last week of a munitions ship immediately generated the demand for "urgent strategic discussions" on the new situation and on continued contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Ostensibly, the question that aroused this need is hypothetical: What would have happened if the munitions had reached their destination? In effect, this should be the Israel Defense Forces' and the government's working assumption, because, even if the PA failed this time to build up a sophisticated arsenal, it could succeed the next time and might already have stockpiled long-range weapons.
But why the need now for new strategic thinking when Israel, even before the ship's capture, regarded the PA as an enemy and when, even before American peace envoy Anthony Zinni landed in this region, Israeli representatives were already armed with evidence that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is not keeping his end of the bargain over the assurance of seven days of calm?
On the eve of Zinni's arrival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stated that he saw nothing remarkable in the reduction in the number of terrorist incidents from 150 to 60 or from 60 to 30. Even if calm has been obtained, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz feels the credit is due to the IDF's operations, not to any actions of the PA, which is thoroughly "infested with terror."
Furthermore, Israel's National Security Council has declared that Arafat, with or without calm, is irrelevant and that the best course is to see to his removal or neutralization or, alternatively, to exert pressure on him so that at least a partial peace treaty or a temporary calm can be attained.
Ignoring for the moment its internal contradiction, this assessment implies that the demand for seven days of calm is illogical. After all, how can one speak of a seven-day calm as an initial step in the continuation of the peace process when, according to Israel's position, no talks can be held with someone who tried to bring a munitions ship into the region?
If the demand for seven days of calm is intended to prove that Arafat cannot, or does not want to, establish calm, that demand is unnecessary, because the pronouncement concerning Arafat's capacity or willingness for restoring calm has already been made by both the NSC and the chief of staff.
These questions can be considered as a rhetorical exercise rather than as a genuine attempt to find the solution to a logical counter-argument. Despite the ship and despite Israel's production of evidence of Arafat's violation of signed agreements, Zinni has left both sides with instructions for implementing a mechanism for building the seven days of calm.
Here is the real hurdle, because both the demand for seven days of calm and the proposal for the confidence-building measures that are included in the Mitchell Report create the illusion that a solution is in reach when, in truth, the demand and the proposal keep on pushing a solution further away. The reason is that every confidence-building measure demands the establishment of a) a new structure for independent negotiations; b) an entire network of arguments and counter-arguments; c) American or European mediation; and d) the chalking-up of positive and negative points.
Any failure in implementing one of these measures will immediately cause the entire dialogue structure to collapse. On the other hand, successful implementation will only mean that the two sides can go on to the next confidence-building measure.
Sharon could not hope for a better mechanism for placing obstacles in the way of the peace process. The munitions ship, it would seem, offers yet another reason for Israel's digging its heels deeper into its entrenched position and for its opposing any diplomatic move whatsoever. Sharon, and not just Arafat, could also be awarded the label of irrelevance regarding the peace process.
It seems logical to assume that, were NSC head Major General Uzi Dayan running a private research institute and were he asked to evaluate Sharon's performance in the peace process, Dayan would use the same terms he used concerning Arafat - namely, that Sharon is incapable of making an historic compromise and that, if Israel wants to make progress in the peace process, Sharon must be replaced by another leader, or, alternatively, heavy pressure must be exerted on him so as to obtain even a temporary framework of reasonable coexistence with the Palestinians.
Thus, perhaps the time has come to skip the Tenet and Mitchell recommendations and to proceed with substantive talks on a final status agreement, whose implementation would be determined, on a step-by-step basis, by the degree of mutual trust that will be built between the two sides, and not the other way around.
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