After two days of intense negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed this week to a ceasefire that would end the bloodiest unrest the region has experienced in decades. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak nor Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has evinced much enthusiasm for the deal. Their followers are even less supportive of the agreement. Indeed, at this moment, the ceasefire is not holding. Nonetheless, the deal is the best that can be achieved at this point: Both men must do their utmost to see that it is implemented.
Nearly three weeks of violence have left the peace process in tatters. The impact of the unrest was plainly visible in the talks. There were no smiles among the participants, nor handshakes. Reportedly, the two sides were yelling at each other during the meetings. Nothing was committed to paper. In a telling indication of the lack of trust, Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat made their commitments to U.S. President Bill Clinton, not to each other. After announcing the deal, Mr. Clinton refused to take questions from the media to avoid inflaming the conflict.
According to Mr. Clinton, both sides agreed to issue public statements “unequivocally calling for an end of violence.” They promised to take immediate steps to end the confrontation and prevent it from starting again. In addition, Israelis and Palestinians will act “to return the situation to that which existed prior to the current crisis.” In concrete terms, that means the Palestinian Authority will end the mob violence and rearrest Islamic militants released from Palestinian prisons during the unrest. Israel will redeploy its forces and reopen Palestinian territories, including the Gaza airport.
The United States will help “facilitate” security cooperation and help organize, with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a fact-finding commission to investigate the causes of the unrest. In two weeks, Israeli and Palestinian representatives will meet in Washington to see how things stand.
Both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak can claim to have won points at the summit. Mr. Arafat got his international investigation, while Mr. Barak ensured that the U.S., its ally, plays the leading role, since Mr. Clinton will get to approve the final report.
Halting the unrest is the first key step, however, and that will not be easy. Within hours of the summit’s end, there were gunbattles that resulted in two more Palestinian casualties, bringing the death toll of the unrest to 102 — the vast majority of the victims Palestinians or Arab Israelis. More troubling still is the refusal of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization to agree to put down its arms. Its leaders called the summit a failure and promised to continue the uprising.
Palestinian leaders have said that Mr. Arafat cannot control the crowds. They may be right, but he is expected — at the very least — to exercise discipline over his own militants. The Palestinian leader must make a real attempt to restore order to the territories. Disarmament is vital. Without that effort, Israel will not withdraw its forces and the violence will once again spiral out of control. Mr. Barak has said that he will wait 48 hours to see what is done before redeploying his troops.
To their credit, the Palestinians moved quickly and have already rearrested the Islamic militants that were released. But leaders of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group, have rejected the agreement and vowed to press on with their fight. With Islamic forces holding several Israeli soldiers and citizens, seized during the last two weeks, Israeli reprisals are virtually certain. It is unlikely that the peace process, in its current state, will be able to withstand those blows.
The question hanging over the situation is whether the Palestinian people have given up on a negotiated peace. The peace process has not created a Palestinian state, and it has delivered precious little tangible improvement in their lives. They see that the campaign of violence waged by Islamic militants forced Israel to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon, and they sense a shift in international sentiment as a result of the Barak government’s heavy-handed use of force in the last three weeks.
The challenge, then, is not just ending the violence. Rather, Palestinian and Israeli leaders must re-establish hope, and the promise of a better future through cooperation rather than confrontation. A ceasefire is the first step. Only then can the two sides begin the long process of rebuilding the trust that has been destroyed. It will not be easy, but the events of the last 20 days have made the consequences of a failure abundantly clear.
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