Israeli military and police forces were placed on high alert on the eve of Passover for fear of increased Palestinian terrorist attacks with the U.S. peace mission on the verge of collapse and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat prevented from attending this week’s Arab League summit in Beirut.
Israel Radio reported that all army leave was cancelled and all police personnel — especially in Jerusalem — were mobilized in an effort to thwart attacks.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was quoted by the Maariv newspaper as calling the decision of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to effectively prevent Arafat from going to Beirut a “mistake.” And Ben-Eliezer’s warning that Sharon’s decision “will provoke an escalation in terrorism” was the newspaper’s banner headline Wednesday.
The much-touted 21-nation Arab League summit opened Wednesday with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah asking the Arab world to endorse his historic land-for peace offer to Israel. In return for Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders and acknowledging a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Arab world would normalize relations with Israel.
As the summit proceeded, the mission of U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni sputtered. An adviser to Sharon, Dore Gold, said that although Israel gave up its original demand of seven-days of quiet before agreeing to talks and withdrew its forces from Palestinian autonomous areas, the Palestinians did not make any compromises.
“We also accepted a watered-down Tenet proposal of Zinni’s but the Palestinians didn’t respond with any corresponding concessions of their own,” he complained.
Israel announced on Tuesday an agreement in principle on Zinni’s compromises but Palestinians close to Arafat expressed reservations. Gold said Arafat has not commented on the proposals. At issue, according to news reports, is Israel’s demand for an end to terror attacks and the Palestinian’s demand that the talks encompass political issues that would give them a roadmap to Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state.
Zinni said Tuesday that the gaps between the two sides were so wide that it would be useless to conduct another round of joint security talks, which were predicated upon progress in the cease-fire negotiations. But before the Passover recess, Zinni reportedly was going to ask Sharon to make further concessions to win a cease-fire.
As the Zinni mission faltered, several news organizations quoted senior Israeli officials as saying that should Zinni return home without an agreement, Israel was prepared to launch major forays into Palestinian territory and to stay there longer than they did two weeks ago, when they remained only a few days in an effort to arrest Palestinian terrorists and destroy bomb factories.
Israeli officials denied there was such a plan when the Washington Post published it at the beginning of the week. But the French wire service, Agence France-Presse, said it was told by an Israeli source Tuesday that if Zinni left the area a failure and violence flared anew, “I guess we will have to take more aggressive operational steps” in the territories.
Palestinian terror attacks, a daily way of life since the wave of Palestinian violence began 18 months ago, continued unabated. A Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself up late last week in downtown Jerusalem killed three Israelis. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert was conducting a radio call-in program at the time and heard the explosion through the cell phone of a caller who was near the blast.
“This is war,” he told The Jewish Week by phone a short time later. “I’m in the center of the pain and the tears and the shock. We’re trying to comfort each other and to strengthen each other.”
“Fifteen kilometers from here there is someone who can stop it but won’t,” he added, referring to Arafat.
On Wednesday, Israelis at a checkpoint north of Jerusalem arrested a Palestinian on its most wanted list who they found traveling in a Red Crescent ambulance. Inside the ambulance, troops found a hidden belt of explosives.
On Tuesday, two members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) observers force were killed when a Palestinian gunman armed with a Kalishnikov rifle and wearing the uniform of a Palestinian policeman opened fire on their car, which was traveling on a by-pass road used almost exclusively by Israelis, according to a third member of the force who wounded in the attack. He provided a gripping account of what happened to Israel Radio from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from two bullet wounds. He said all they identified themselves to the gunman and that he opened fire on them from pointblank range. All three were unarmed and assigned to observe outbreaks of conflict in Hebron, where about 450 Isarelis live surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.
Gold, noting the Palestinian’s repeated demands for international monitors in the entire area, said that what happened “shows the real dangers when you deploy international monitors in areas of active conflict.”
“These guys are saying they want more monitors and at the same time their own security forces are shooting them,” he said.
Observers said Sharon did not have an easy choice in deciding whether to prevent Arafat from going to the summit. If by keeping him in Ramallah there is an increase in terrorist attacks, those on the political left like Ben-Eliezer can say these were reprisal attacks. But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that had Sharon allowed Arafat to leave, the right-wing members of his coalition would have pulled out, causing a collapse of his government.
Almost from the start of the summit there was behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the wording of one key aspect of the proposal: the fate of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees. How that issue is dealt with in the final communiqué of the summit could prove crucial in terms of Israeli response to the offer, according to Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan.
“We hope it doesn’t just speak of repatriation [which Israel would outright reject] but also says compensation,” Ben-Meir explained. “Israel has indicated it would participate in compensation, as would the United States, the European Union, Japan and others. We are talking of tens of billions of dollars.”
The summit took place in the absence not only of Arafat but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, both of whom cited security concerns for their failure to attend, although Mubarak later said his absence was out of sympathy with Arafat. Israeli sources suggested that both leaders feared a terror attack by Arab militants bent on derailing any peace overtures to Israel. Both Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties with Israel.
In his address to fellow Arab leaders, Prince Abdullah asked his colleagues for support to present his vision as a “clear and unanimous” initiative to the United Nations Security Council. Jordan’s prime minister, Ali Abu al-Ragheb, quickly accepted the proposal, which he said “constitutes a corner-stone of a comprehensive peace in the region.”
“The initiative also sends a clear message to the whole world that Arabs want peace and that they are working to achieve it for all peoples of the region, and that Israel is the one putting obstacles in its way,” he added.
Arafat’s address to the summit was carried by satellite from his headquarters in Ramallah by Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV. But for some reason, it was not heard in the conference hall and aides to Arafat said they were later assured that Arafat would have a chance at a later date to address the Arab League. But shortly after those assurances, Arafat ordered his delegation home in protest.
Aides said Arafat had opted not to attend the conference after Sharon said in a television interview that Arafat could leave only after first publicly declaring a cease-fire in Arabic. And if Arafat went, Sharon said, he would ask the U.S. for permission to bar his return should there be additional terrorist attacks or should Arafat use incendiary language while there.
But in his remarks on Al Jazeera, Arafat was anything but combative, saying he welcomed what he called the Saudi’s “courageous initiative” and adding that he hoped it would bring about a “peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
But Steinberg, the Bar-Ilan professor, cautioned that summit meetings never bring about dramatic changes in the Middle East.
“Change happens slowly and not as a result of a single event,” he said. “The specifics of the summit are not as important as what happens in the long term to promote the package the Saudis have proposed.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Arab League summit would be a “net plus” if it ended with a statement of what Israel needed to do to gain Arab recognition.
“The Arabs are saying it is a signal to the Israeli public that peace is possible,” he said. “But an Arab League meeting like this has an educational value in telling the Arab people that the conflict with the Israelis is not existential. … They are saying that if you meet Palestinian and Syrian demands, we have nothing against you.”
Makovsky said that although the Saudi initiative is a step forward, it is only peripheral to the basic problem — the need to convince the Palestinians that “violence is not a legitimate option “
“It’s not enough to draw a picture of peace, you have to have a pathway to get there,” he added. “A picture of peace has limited value if it cannot be implemented. The Arab League could try a new tact if it engaged in truth telling with the Palestinians. … Everywhere [Vice President Dick] Cheney went last week he was met with an Arab refrain to press Israel. No Arab leader has publicly said what their country is doing to press the Palestinians.”