Even as U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni struggled to piece together a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinian attacks continued and Israeli intelligence reported no let-up in terrorist activity.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that based upon the pattern of the attacks — a suicide bomber Wednesday killed seven fellow passengers aboard a public bus near the northern Israeli town of Afula — Palestinian President Yasir Arafat ‘s objectives are “indistinguishable from those of Hamas,” which has vowed to destroy Israel.
“This is not a struggle over the so-called occupation but over the future of Israel,” he said.
Nevertheless, Gold said Israel would continue talking with the Palestinians to craft a lasting cease-fire, no doubt because of Jerusalem’s interest in complying with American pressure for an end to the violence. Gold was not optimistic about the latest push for a cease-fire, noting that Arafat has broken nine others. He said that until a cease-fire was in place, Israel reserved the right to respond to what he called a “wave of terrorism.”
This week alone, another suicide bomber injured several Israelis when he blew himself up outside a bus in Jerusalem; a Palestinian gunman opened fire in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, killing an 18-year-old girl and injuring several others before being shot dead, and two Kassam-2 rockets were fired into Israel without causing any casualties.
Wednesday’s deadly suicide attack, in which Israeli Arabs and four Israeli soldiers were among those killed, was condemned in a statement by the Palestinian Authority.
“Despite the bleeding wounds of Palestinian civilians, this requires everybody not to carry out any attacks against civilians in Israel,” it said.
On Monday, a letter written to Sharon March 12 by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was leaked to the media in which Annan harshly criticized Israel for using excessive military force that has led to the death and injury of civilians. Israel responded by criticizing the leak and pointing out that it was working with Zinni to help ensure that terror attacks are ended. Annan’s statement was criticized by Jewish groups as one-sided and unfair, essentially ignoring Palestinian terrorism.
The bus bombing came just one day after Vice President Dick Cheney met in Jerusalem with Sharon and promised to meet with Arafat should he take steps to end terrorist activity. Palestinian officials were quick to welcome such a meeting, Arafat’s first with such a high-ranking member of the Bush administration, which could take place as soon as next week, depending on whether Zinni determines the Palestinian leader is doing all he can to stop the violence.
Prior to Cheney’s arrival, Israeli troops withdrew from Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank to set the stage for a cease-fire. Gold said they would remain in some Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip, where they have sat for several months, until there is a cease-fire.
“Israel went the extra mile to make a cease-fire work,” he said, adding that there would be no political talks with the Palestinians until a cease-fire is implemented.
“There are no political negotiations while Israel is under fire,” he stressed.
But Henry Siegman of the Council of Foreign Relations said such posturing is doomed to failure.
“A ceasefire without the context of a clear political goal can’t last,” he said. “If it lasts two weeks it would be a lot.”
He said the one thing Cheney learned on his 12-nation, 10-day swing through the region is that “Arab states take seriously the violence,” which he said has proven a “serious impediment to American plans” to strike against Iraq. And Siegman said he believed that by leaving the Middle East without meeting with Arafat, Cheney had made a “serious mistake.”
“If you are going to create a political process, you have to meet with Arafat,” he explained. “The old pattern of stop the violence and then we will begin political” talks does not work.
A cease-fire, said Siegman, will have allowed Sharon to achieve his goal of ending the terrorist threat, but it will not have helped Arafat. Arafat wants a road map that clearly delineates when there will be a Palestinian state, its exact borders and the future of Palestinian refugees.
“He will continue [the violence] until he can show he has a political program,” Siegman said. “If it is left vague and uncertain, the situation will not be changed.”
Among those with whom Israel would conduct political talks are the Palestinians’ Preventive Security Service chiefs, Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan. Israel Radio quoted Palestinian media reports as saying both men praised Wednesday’s suicide bus bombing.
Zalman Shoval, another adviser to Sharon and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said one of the reasons Zinni could achieve a cease-fire was because of the pressure placed on Arafat by neighboring Arab states.
“The Arab states want to prove to the Americans that they can have some effect on creating a cease-fire in connection with the Abdullah initiative,” said Shoval, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s promise to establish normal relations with Israel should Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders. Abdullah is slated to present that initiative at next week’s Arab summit meeting in Beirut in a bid to get other Arab nations to go along.
Such a move would be welcomed by Israel, according to Israel’s consul general in New York, Alon Pinkus. He told board members of UJA-Federation last week that what the Arab world is now being asked to accept is similar to the United Nations’ partition plan of 1947 that the Arabs at the time rejected.
“The fact that they [may be] accepting it now is nothing less than a great triumph for the State of Israel,” he said. “If what the Saudis are talking about is a normalization of relations with Israel … than Zionism is a success and everything we hoped for. It closes the circle.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the basic question is whether Israel has a “partner for peace.”
Hoenlein said the “critical question” is not just getting a cease-fire but bringing about a “total end to the violence … [and] about Israel’s right to exist.”
Shoval said that should there be terrorist attacks after the cease-fire, all eyes would be on Arafat to see if he insists — as he has in the past — that such attacks were committed by individuals who were beyond his control.
“We have no illusions about the ultimate aim of Yasir Arafat,” Shoval said. “They are far away from the goals enunciated by American leaders — two states living peacefully side-by-side. Arafat wants the whole loaf. He will not sign a peace treaty recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, agreeing to an end of the conflict, and annulling the right of Palestinian refugees to return.”
But at this point the Sharon government has little choice but to go through the motions of signing a truce, noted Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“The core of Sharon’s policy is to appease the Americans,” he explained. “If it works, okay. If it doesn’t work, at least the Americans will be on board and Sharon will not have sabotaged the American efforts. There is also an impression that Arafat will not be allowed to get away with what he has done in the past — talk in English about peace and encourage suicide bombers in Arabic. The presence of Zinni assures that he will keep Arafat’s feet to the fire. … Zinni needs to go through with this, even if he thinks it will not pay off because of the bigger picture – Iraq.”
Steinberg said that with a cease-fire in place, the Bush administration can say to Arab leaders that it did its best to stop the violence, that it is now up to Arafat to make it work, and that it is time to move on to the issue of Iraq.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, agreed that the renewed American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from the Bush administration’s desire to go after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“I see Arab-Israeli, but I hear Iraq,” he said. “Look at the remarkable change of the U.S. towards the conflict in the last few weeks. How else would you explain it? … When Abdullah finds a [peace] plan in his drawer and Sharon makes a declaration — it’s all posturing. These are complete irrelevancies, and until the issue of Arab rejection of Israel is addressed, these are just symbolic discussions.”
“I don’t think there is any chance whatsoever that the Arabs are going to shut down the conflict with Israel,” Pipes continued. “The challenge to Israel is to prove it is there and that it is not going away. … The U.S. has to take steps, preferably in coordination with Arab leaders, to induce a change of heart [in the Palestinians]. They have to build up their own society, develop a productive economy, a flourishing culture, and move away from their preoccupation with Israel.”