Israelis and Palestinians will, it seems, wake up this morning to a new era: The thousand-day war will be behind them, leaving more than 800 fatalities on the Israeli side, more than 2,200 on the Palestinian side and tens of thousands of wounded on both sides. Each people's ability to trust the other has been severely damaged.
There is some poetic justice in the fact that Ariel Sharon, the man who provided the match that ignited the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, is the person to bring an end to the armed insurrection that developed from it. The sincerity of Sharon's intention to persist with the cease-fire, which is supposed to come into effect today, is still under suspicion, but he should be credited with the turnabout in the Israeli approach, which provides some chance to lower the intensity of the conflict.
It was Sharon's aggressive military approach that afforded the Palestinians the insight that they are paying too heavy a price for the violence, and, simultaneously, showed Israelis that there is a limit to what force can do to repress national aspirations. Sharon has also shown leadership in his willingness to compromise on the conditions of a cease-fire and to prod the government into accepting this situation.
This is very short-term and extremely limited credit. Sharon is capable of changing his position overnight and there are more than enough reasons to view with skepticism the agreement he gave to calming the armed conflict with the Palestinians. His U-turn on the Wye agreement in October 1998 still has not been forgotten: Within the course of a single day, he and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded their agreement to implement the second stage of the Oslo Accords. The negative political reaction to the news from Wye Plantation, principally from within the Likud, deterred Sharon and Netanyahu to such an extent that they avoided carrying it out. Over the course of the next three months, therefore, Sharon will be judged by his actions and not by his stated position.
The fate of the security agreement that seems likely to be signed between Israel and the Palestinians is dependent on both sides' intentions: Are they indeed ready to settle the dispute by negotiations, or is the imminent agreement merely a time-out, ahead of another round of violence? Israelis and Palestinians alike have been exhausted by the past 1,000 days, but there is no guarantee that they have reached the point of no return, after which they will opt for the negotiating table rather than violence.
Thus, there is a justified fear that the leaders of both sides will continue to advocate a violent path for the conflict. Only the United States is capable of preventing them from doing so, as the past few days have shown.
The agreement was forced on Israel and the Palestinians by the U.S. administration, which can continue to pressure them to compromise along the line. President Bush's actions serve to counter Israel's excuses for holding on to the territories it captured in 1967. He threatens President Assad, includes Hezbollah in the axis of evil, acts to head off Iran's plans to obtain nuclear weapons and exerts his influence (mainly via Egypt) to soften the stance of the Palestinian leadership.
In tandem, he makes Israel even more dependent on the U.S. (through loan guarantees) and improves Sharon's bargaining power in the internal political arena, by declaring that terrorist infrastructure must be dismantled. This pincer move, which, as expected, includes both the carrot and the stick, did the trick and led Sharon (and the Palestinians) to agree to a cease-fire.
This is a fairly effective method of applying pressure, which inspires some measure of hope that the new era, due to start today, will be more than a fleeting episode. The heart is tempted to believe that both sides will, indeed, honor the agreement - not just because of the pressure, but because they develop a real will to adhere to it. The land of Israel without bloodshed is a vision that is attractive for both sides, but, by the same token, could turn out to be a wish that reality will quickly dispel.
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