Too little, too late

“There are no sacred dates,” declared the late Yitzhak Rabin. To the extent that it is up to them, it appears that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) happily embrace this insight.

More than two months after Israel and the Palestinian Authority accepted the Bush administration’s roadmap, things are moving slowly. Both sides are dragging their feet along the path charted by the experts in Washington, each constantly eyeing the other to make sure it is not lingering too far back. And since the Americans are in any case preoccupied with an escalating dilemma in Iraq, the chances are slim that a genuine effort will be made in the near term to actually compel Israel and the Palestinians to obey the administration’s detailed instructions quickly and completely.

What has been achieved thus far should not be taken lightly. June 2003 is to date the quietest month since the second intifada began; incitement in the Palestinian media has almost stopped; and Israel has evacuated parts of the Gaza Strip and the Bethlehem area. But a measured examination of the main components of phase I of the roadmap indicates that it is still early even to give the two sides a passing grade.

Security. The biggest success of the process is without doubt the declaration of a ceasefire or hudna–which officially is not even part of the process. Terrorist attacks this month have killed three Israelis, but in general the ceasefire is being maintained. Order has been restored to most regions, and the daily rate of live fire incidents has dropped by more than half, to between two and five. Those attacks that have taken place were perpetrated by what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Directorate calls “Fateh dissidents”, members of local Tanzim gangs in the northern West Bank, a rebellious Islamic Jihad cell in Jenin and members of the “popular resistance committees” who abandoned Fateh in the southern Gaza Strip. There the Palestinian Authority (PA) is hesitant to use force as long as the West Bank is still largely under Israeli security responsibility; senior Fateh officials argue that a cessation of IDF roundups of suspects there would reduce the rebels’ concern for their personal security and culminate in a reduction in attacks.

But the more significant issue involves the dismantling of the terrorist organizations’ infrastructure. Here the PA has done nearly nothing. Instead of arrests, terrorist militants were summoned to “warning talks,” even as the PA clarified that it had no intention of settling accounts with suspects regarding past attacks. The diverse organizations are permitted for the time being to hold onto their weapons, while the commitment to unify the security branches into three roof organizations, all under Abu Mazen’s authority, has encountered, as anticipated, strong resistance on the part of Yasir Arafat, to whom at least half the security units continue to report.

The humanitarian situation. Accordingly, Israel too is delaying implementation of its commitments. In the Gaza Strip, soldiers’ open-fire orders have been restricted and the trip from Gaza City to Rafah has been reduced from 5-6 hours to 20 minutes. But in most areas of the West Bank nothing has changed. Most Palestinian cities remain surrounded, entrances to villages are blockaded and road travel is forbidden. Only some 20,000 Palestinians (mostly the fortunate from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem) are permitted to work in Israel. For the time being Israel is delaying any discussion of additional withdrawals to the September 28, 2000 lines. And without such withdrawals the living conditions for around half the Palestinians are simply impossible.

Prisoner release. While this issue is not included in the roadmap, it is the most substantive of all for Palestinians. At this point Israel is prepared to release only some 350 out of around 6,000 prisoners it holds. Sharon, under American pressure, agreed to include a few dozen Hamas and Islamic Jihad detainees who have no “blood on their hands.” Without a more massive release it is doubtful whether it will be possible to gain the Palestinian public’s support for the process.

Outposts. Israel’s performance on this issue borders on the ridiculous. One outpost, Mitzpe Yitzhar, was evacuated despite a confrontation between the IDF and the settlers, and around five were evacuated by agreement–while more than ten new outposts have been established in their place. The government shied away from touching dozens of additional outposts, and probably won’t in the future either.

In briefing talks with IDF officers, Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon has advocated following two rules in ongoing contacts with the PA: meticulous insistence on the Palestinians maintaining their security commitments, alongside a display of generosity and even calculated risks with regard to enhancing living conditions for Palestinians. Of these two rules, the Israeli political echelon appears to have opted to adopt only the first.

In the coming months the roadmap will face its real test: the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure by the PA, and ongoing IDF redeployments from designated areas. Success in these two parameters is likely to produce a half-year extension of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, while it is too early to conclude that the American initiative has failed, it is still held hostage by too many lunatic elements. It has not yet developed an internal logic of its own that can edge the two sides forward. The main problems are trust in the other side’s intentions–which has almost disappeared–and of course the gaps separating the two sides’ positions regarding final status issues (the future of the settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return). At least under the present leaders these appear unbridgeable.

Amos Harel is the military correspondent for Ha’aretz daily newspaper.

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