A mild remedy for a severe illness

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Israeli-Palestinian relations have visibly entered a new phase, as the two exhausted sides appear to be rethinking their conflict policies after over 38 months of stalemated fighting. The indicators of the change are obvious. On the Palestinian side, the rise of Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei) as prime minister has led to a new ceasefire initiative, which could serve as a platform for upcoming negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At the same time, there is a growing recognition in Israel that a decisive military victory over the Palestinians is beyond reach, and that therefore some compromise could serve the country’s interests better than a prolonged war of attrition.

The mutual fatigue, which has already brought both Israelis and Palestinians to lower the conflict’s intensity, gives the current effort to stop the violence a better chance to succeed than previous, failed attempts. Other factors support this optimistic assessment. Sharon has lost his magic grip over Israeli public opinion, and lags behind in his approval ratings. The Israeli consensus over the war has been torn apart, as the previously mute left wing regained the political initiative with a series of endeavors, from the refusenik pilots to the Geneva accords and the public warning by four retired security chiefs. Under domestic attack, Sharon pledged a new diplomatic initiative, and hinted at a possible removal of settlements in Gaza as part of a unilateral package.

Sharon faces strong criticism from the right and within his Likud Party, but powerful players have adhered to his new, moderate tone. The Israel Defense Forces, which have long advocated a forceful showdown in order to “burn the Palestinian consciousness” against using terrorism, have changed course. Instead of using more force, the military now advocates a quick withdrawal from Palestinian West Bank cities and entry into negotiations, fearing that “time is on the Palestinians’ side”. Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s loyal deputy, calls for a deep unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories, in order to save Israel’s Jewish majority and character. Olmert’s call is heresy by Likud standards; nevertheless Sharon tacitly backed him, signaling that Olmert is his political pathfinder.

Abu Ala has tried his best to avoid the hurdles which ruined his predecessor Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and led to the latter’s swift resignation. The new premier avoided meeting Sharon before forging a Palestinian consensus. He even refrained from asking for American support, while Washington was careful not to “hug” him. And most importantly, instead of appearing to oust Yasir Arafat, Abu Ala has willingly bowed to the veteran leader’s authority and declared himself his loyal subordinate. By giving away any claim to wield security authority, Abu Ala aimed to keep Arafat on his side. Sharon has grudgingly accepted the new-old order, and even praised Abu Ala’s political experience and shrewdness as good signs.

Alas, the same factors also work against the new calming efforts and diminish their chances for success. Sharon’s weakness guarantees that he will find it difficult to recruit political support for compromise. True to form, following an initial moderate opening Sharon resorted to his usual threatening mode, and warned the Palestinians that if they fail to make a deal with him, they might be locked behind fences and remain in control of less than half of the West Bank.

Israel treats Abu Ala in a cold, businesslike manner, without the summit atmosphere that enveloped its dealings with Abu Mazen. But this obvious lack of enthusiasm makes it harder to convince the wary Israeli public that there is a new opportunity. Moreover, Israel disapproves of Abu Ala’s declared policy of prolonged ceasefire rather than the uprooting of terrorism, and rejects outright his demand to stop security fence construction in the West Bank. And the Arafat patronage may have helped legitimize Abu Ala domestically, but the old leader’s return to center stage is an assured recipe for trouble with Israel, especially since all Palestinian security forces report to Arafat.

The American distance from the scene will only grow as the November 2004 presidential elections draw closer. Washington is still engaged in micromanaging the conflict, mainly to prevent Israel from prejudging the final status through fence and settlement construction. This is insufficient, however, to draw both sides toward a genuine compromise.

But the main obstacle for a real breakthrough has not changed since the outbreak of violence in late summer 2000: Israel’s proposals are far below the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians. Even the “virtual” Geneva accord, which bespeaks a better deal for the Palestinians than the rejected Barak proposals of Camp David and Taba, failed to gain strong Palestinian endorsement. Clearly, the Palestinians will never accept any less generous proposition by Sharon, even if he continues down the path of withdrawal and settlement evacuation.

Thus there is a good chance for a period of relative quiet. But the underlying causes of the conflict are bound to undermine it eventually and prevent any deeper change.

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