Israel has every right to protect itself against terrorism. The questions that swirl around Israel’s policies focus on whether its actions create more security for the Jewish state or less. The Israeli government’s decision last week to bar a Palestinian delegation from attending a London peace conference is only the most recent such move. Sabotaging a peace conference will not be in Israel’s best interests.
In an attempt to jump-start the stalled “quartet process” — so named because its participants include the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — Britain had planned to hold a two-day peace conference this week in London. The discussions would have focused on a possible truce between Israelis and Palestinians and reform of the Palestinian Authority, both of which have been Israeli preconditions to any peace deal. An additional target of the meeting was the U.S., which has shown a reluctance to get involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
By demonstrating the contours of a deal, and the willingness of the Palestinians to move on key issues, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had hoped to prod Washington into a more active role. The decision by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to deny the Palestinians permission to travel makes that impossible.
The Israeli government acted in response to two recent suicide bombings in Tel Aviv that killed 22 innocent people, the two suicide bombers and injured scores more. In addition, Israel closed three Palestinian universities and Israeli tanks and helicopters continued military operations in the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials also said they would prohibit a gathering on Thursday of the Palestinian Central Council, which was set to review a draft Palestinian Constitution. The Israeli response was notably restrained in comparison to those that followed previous terrorist attacks.
Mr. Sharon’s government blames the Palestinian Authority for the bombings. That is understandable since the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Fatah itself has issued two statements denouncing the bombings and said the two men identified by Al-Aksa as the perpetrators were not members of the organization.
As always, there are additional wrinkles to the decision. There was speculation that Israel was also piqued by Mr. Blair’s refusal to see Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently, while the British prime minister agreed to host the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Mr. Amram Mitzna. That photo opportunity takes on added significance with elections scheduled for the end of the month and Mr. Sharon increasingly ensnared in a bribery scandal. There are also reports that Israel was angry at the British decision to block exports of spare parts for Israeli fighter planes because of alleged human rights abuses by Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The motivations are equally twisted on the Palestinian side of the equation. The statement from the Al-Aksa Martyrs blamed Fatah for attempting to curry favor with the Israelis and rejected Egyptian attempts to broker a ceasefire among all of the Palestinian factions. In other words, the suicide attacks were designed to punish Palestinians — by prompting an Israeli response — for trying to establish the foundation for peace. The Israeli government seems to have obliged.
Israel appears to have opted for punishment over advancing the national interest. (And that is the charitable explanation for the decision to ban Palestinian delegates from attending the London meeting.) Mr. Sharon’s government claims that the Palestinian leadership is monolithic and that Mr. Arafat has more control over Fatah and the Al-Aksa Martyrs than he admits. The truth of that proposition is unclear, but banning Palestinians from the London conference definitely prevents factions from emerging. And since an important theme of the meeting was reform of the Palestinian Authority — another critical Israeli objective — it is difficult to understand how denying Palestinians the opportunity to hear what reform would permit — or how to achieve it — makes sense.
It is not too late for Mr. Sharon to reverse his decision. The Palestinians should be permitted to attend the London meeting. An about-face would demonstrate Israel’s good faith and Mr. Sharon’s readiness to take the long view. The burden would then be on the Palestinians to show that they too are ready to make peace rather than merely talk about it.
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