No Breakthrough

Each time it appears as though there is a lull in the violent stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians, somebody comes and shatters the illusion by perpetrating a major terror strike, or an assassination reprisal.

The assassination of senior Hamas member Abu Hanoud shortly before the scheduled arrival of U.S. envoy former general Anthony Zinni re-hashes a familiar sequence: Each time it appears as though there is a lull in the violent stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians, somebody comes and shatters the illusion by perpetrating a major terror strike, or an assassination reprisal. This bloody ritual brings any progress to a crashing halt. Negotiations are not conducted while violence persists, and the outline of discussions sketched by the Tenet plan cannot even start because the requirement of seven days of quiet in affairs between the two sides has not been met.

A reminder for anyone who has forgotten. Last June, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued a unilateral cease-fire declaration. Though it was a public relations gimmick, it brought about actual results: The IDF palpably reduced the level of its responses to Palestinian attacks. There were signs indicating that violence in the dispute was abating, and then came the lethal Dolphinarium attack, a strike against a Tel Aviv discotheque designed to ruin prospects of talks. Alarmed by Israeli displays of rage, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat issued his own unilateral cease-fire declaration; and Sharon decided to exercise restraint.

July was marked by a clear drop in Palestinian attacks. Capitalizing on this, Arafat announced that the PA had met Israel's demand of seven days of quiet. But then Israeli security forces knocked off three Islamic Jihad men in Jenin. The assassinations triggered a spree of attacks and reprisals which eradicated what had been described as a truce.

In August, Palestinian gunmen fired repeatedly at Gilo and Israel responded by considering an invasion of Beit Jala. The idea, however, was dropped due to American pressure and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' entreaties. Then the IDF assassinated Abu Ali Mustafa, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader; Palestinians responded by stepping up gunfire attacks against Gilo, and throwing in some mortar shells to boot. So Israel went ahead and carried out the Beit Jala incursion plan, and also ordered F-15 and F-16 plane attacks against selected targets in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. Once again, hopes that the violence might be winding down were crushed.

In September, shortly before Yom Kippur, Peres and Arafat met in the Gaza Strip. The encounter was far from normal procedure: Responding to continued Palestinian violence, Sharon routinely refused to allow Peres to meet with the Palestinian leader. Sharon gave this one-time go-ahead for the Gaza airport meeting only because the foreign minister had issued threats about leaving the government. As the discussion ensued, Palestinians slipped past Peres and Arafat, stashed ammunition in a tunnel that had been dug under the IDF's Termit base and destroyed part of the post. The IDF responded furiously; violence in Gaza escalated.

October witnessed a week of scaled-back violence between the sides. Then the assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi ruptured renewed dreams of quiet and resumed talks. Israel's strike against Ataf Abayat and two of his associates one day after Ze'evi was slain set the stage for a new set of Israeli military reprisals - incursions into Palestinian-controlled "A" areas, killings of terror suspects, arrests of terror suspects and closures around West Bank cities - which aggravated the suffering of local Palestinian residents.

Now, on the eve of Zinni's visit, there has been a clear drop in terror attacks (Israeli officials have claimed this is due to Shin Bet and IDF pre-emptive moves to thwart terror plans, rather than any decision reached by Arafat). The sides will now hold tight, waiting to see when and how Hamas will carry out its threat to avenge cruelly the killing of Abu Hanoud and his two associates.

This pattern of events illustrates the obstacles impeding a breakthrough and resumed negotiations. Progress must be preceded by a substantive cease-fire period. Those who argue that Israel should not be deterred from negotiating while violence continues are off the mark. The argument is wrong not in principle, but because of practical reasons: Continuing violence is liable to dominate a negotiation process, and derail it. Terror attacks and Israeli counter-strikes follow their own logic; they are motivated by ideology (extremists want to nullify prospects of an agreement), psychology, operational considerations and domestic political need. If this logic is to be broken, the dispute - that is, discussions about the dispute - should be moved to another arena, one where there is a cease-fire.