With a resolution of the stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians in Ramallah and Bethlehem in sight at mid-week, efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to address the underlying conflict are expected to begin next week when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President George W. Bush at the White House.
The chief item on the agenda will be an attempt to "break the psychology of violence" to achieve a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian-controlled areas, followed by the convening of an international conference to discuss the Saudi peace initiative, according to The New York Times.
The paper said that while Bush and Sharon meet in Washington, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and other Arab leaders are expected to meet with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, possibly in Cairo, to press him to end 19 months of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 450 Israelis and 1,300 Palestinians.
"The weight of the Arab world is now behind peace with Israel," The Times quoted a senior Bush administration official as saying, "and that’s the only positive development that’s taken place in the last year, and something that the president’s moving quickly to take advantage of."
The Saudi peace initiative calls for the Arab world to develop normal relations with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, the just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Saudis have privately indicated flexibility on the first two issues, and The Times said the U.S. and Arab leaders would appeal to both Sharon and Arafat to resume negotiations based on the broad outlines that were discussed in Taba, Egypt, just days before President Bill Clinton left office in January 2000.
Reports at the time said both sides had been close to reaching an agreement. But since then Palestinian violence has intensified, Ehud Barak was voted out of office in favor of Sharon, a hardliner, and the Israeli public no longer views Arafat as a peace partner.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon and former Israeli ambassador to Washington, declined to comment on the specifics of The Times’ story but said "any approach that might be interpreted as equality between the two sides is distorting reality and would make finding a solution more difficult." He stressed that there is no "psychology of violence" but rather the use of Palestinian violence by Arafat "as a strategic decision. Israel has a psychology of trying to defend itself."
Asked about the claim that the Arab world really wants peace with Israel, Shoval said "They should first (in addition to putting pressure on Arafat, which would be welcomed) do something to create an atmosphere of peace between themselves and Israel, which they have not done in the past. … Words are not enough; we like to see deeds."
David Newman, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, said he welcomed the new peace initiative. He pointed out that Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s defense minister and Labor Party chairman, said this week that now that Israel’s military operation against the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank has succeeded, peace talks must resume immediately.
"Military solutions are good for the short term and Israel had to respond to the suicide bombings," Newman said. "But they do not bring about a political agreement."
He said he was pleased to learn that the Saudi and Egyptian leaders would be pressuring Arafat to respond positively to the peace efforts because they are "the two major players in the Middle East. If they were to force Arafat to accept a deal, it would be significant in terms of the deal being kept. I don’t know that they are enamored over peace with Israel, but they realize the conflict cannot go on for another 50 or 100 years. They have not had time to focus on anything else."
But Shoval cautioned against believing that a conference (he stressed that Israel has agreed only to a regional conference) could now bring about a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
"If one wants this conference or any other in the future to succeed, one must not lose a sense of realism," he explained. "Whatever one may have hoped for in the past, a permanent, final agreement on all aspects cannot be achieved at this time. To try that would guarantee the failure of this or any other initiative. Therefore if the Arabs are serious, and so far we have seen few signs of their seriousness, one would have to ultimately come up with a formula that would solve some of the problems now and leave others for the future. However, there is one precondition: that there must be a final end to Palestinian violence. Unless that is clear and determined, it isn’t even worthwhile to think about a conference."
Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that before a conference can be convened, the agreements that are going to be reached should be prepared in advance. She said the Camp David talks failed because there was no prior preparation and no one knew "what Arafat and Barak were bringing and what their bottom line was. And the moderate Arab countries were kept out of it."
She said that so far she has seen meetings between leaders but "that’s not where the homework is done."
Sharon may be going to Washington to present evidence to Bush that proves Arafat is not a partner for peace, according to Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. In addition to the evidence, gleaned from a series of raids into several Palestinian areas last month, Pipes said Sharon would likely have "some analysis that looks at the Palestinian-Israeli war in a different light from the way it is being viewed in Washington today."
"There is a basic difference in the understanding of the conflict," Pipes explained. "In Washington, there is the assumption that the Arab acceptance of Israel is a well-established fact. The Sharon government is inclined to see the Arabs as trying to destroy Israel. Sharon has said it’s a fight for Israel’s existence. … This is no longer a time of hope [for action by] Arafat or the Palestinian Authority, this is a time to defend Israel from would-be destroyers."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he cannot envision a regional conference taking place "independent of some political agreements that will change the status quo and move toward a Palestinian state framework. A conference without an agreed framework is unlikely to happen, and getting that framework is going to be extremely difficult."
"Not since the beginning of Oslo [in 1993] have Israeli and Palestinian positions been as polarized as they are now," he added. "It is hard to imagine any agreement that would resolve the issues of refugees, Jerusalem and boundary claims when there is so much anger and so little trust."