The need for a mutual ceasefire

If all things go as planned, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will likely meet this week or the following one. For some time, the peoples of the region and outside officials and observers have been awaiting this important meeting. In fact, this meeting has been awaited ever since Sharon took power in the 2001 Israeli elections. Since that time he has refused to meet with Palestinian leaders until what he calls "terror attacks" end. Sharon also vowed not to meet with elected Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat whom he has placed under virtual house arrest for the past two years.

True, Sharon met Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas, but that event seems to have evaporated like a morning mist, because obviously no issue of substance was discussed.

It is unclear where the meeting will take place. Undoubtedly, Mr. Sharon will pass on the suggestion that it be held in the muqata’a (Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters) and Mr. Qurei will undoubtedly refuse to meet on Palestinian lands that lie on the other side of the wall. Geneva is of course out of the question for the Likud leader, and the idea of Sharon’s farm in the Negev will not gain Palestinian approval.

The Palestinian and Israeli publics are too exhausted to pay attention to the final location of the meeting. These last three years have seen so much killing, destruction, fear and hatred that the slim light of hope offered by any meeting will be much more important than most other details.

Of course, there is no doubt that for Palestinians and Israelis this upcoming meeting will mark an indirect recognition by both parties of their failure. Neither side can claim to having succeeded in landing the knockout punch to the other. Most Palestinians and Israelis are more like tired boxers in the 100th round, in which neither is able to win nor willing to admit defeat.

That is why the various political ideas (Yossi Beilin and Abed Rabbo’s Geneva), the signature drives (Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon’s People’s Voice), as well as the various statements of the Israeli army chief of staff, former security chiefs and the pilots all add to the pressure on the leaders to get moving.

In order to break the cycle of violence, the idea of one side crushing the other side must be removed. Israeli thinking that yet one more assassination will cause the Palestinians to crumble and the Palestinian belief that one more suicide attack will cause the Israelis to raise the white flag have proved to be futile. India’s Mahatma Ghandi once said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless. There has to be a stop to this zero sum game and a return to a sane policy based on reciprocity, compromise and reasonability.

Prime Minister Qurei is correct in trying to put an end to the craziness of the past three years during which the cycle of violence has not ceased. The past shows that the first order of business must be a ceasefire between the Israeli government and all its military and intelligence subsidiaries on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority with all the Palestinian factions, on the other. Such an agreement must put an end to all types of military and armed attacks, as well as assassinations. This agreement needs to be monitored by a neutral third party. This could be done by the Quartet, led by the United States of America.

Finally, such a ceasefire must be supported by concerted round-the-clock negotiations aimed at ending the basic reason for the violence, namely the occupation of the Palestinian areas and determining the issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. At present the Palestinian people and leadership seem to be genuinely ready for a settlement. Israelis are also ready. The big question is whether the Sharon government is willing and able to make an historic agreement.