Mideast violence is forecast


DOHA, Qatar — Despite the positive spin that optimistic politicians put on current developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a crashing storm threatens the shores of the Mediterranean. Such a prediction can easily be read over the events surrounding the Middle East peace process in the last month alone.

On Aug. 6 Palestinian factions concluded a meeting with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. Although described as “positive” by various Palestinian media, the meeting was crammed with grievances held by Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and others. These groups agreed to a three-month “hudna” or ceasefire, starting June 29, as requested by Abbas, on the condition that Israel would cease violent activities in the occupied territories.

The hudna is not over yet, but a list of reported Israeli violations of the ceasefire, presented to Abbas was too long to ignore, including assassinations, land confiscation, arrests and incitement.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not march behind the U.S. initiative without receiving the administration’s assurances that a list of 14 conditions presented to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell would be honored. Powell pacified the Israeli concerns when he promised to study them “seriously.”

Israel says the ceasefire agreement struck between Palestinian factions and the new Palestinian prime minister by no means placed obligations on Sharon’s government. In fact, Israel is pushing Abbas and his men to go after these groups, which are collectively far more popular than the Palestinian Authority and its discredited political apparatus. If the Israeli vision were to be carried out in full, Palestinians would certainly stand at the threshold of a civil war.

The “road map” peace initiative is now confronted by questions: How long can the ceasefire hold if Israel doesn’t satisfy even a fragment of Palestinian aspirations? How long can Abbas stand his ground with little to show for, in terms of breakthroughs, in the peace process? And will the United States continue to pressure Palestinians while hesitating to lock horns with the Israeli government?

The chances of the U.S. changing its way of handling the Middle East conflict, remain grim. After a historic meeting with Abbas on July 25, U.S. President George W. Bush referred to Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank as a “problem.” Palestinian Authority officials brimmed with confidence that the term signaled a major shift in Washington’s policy, which is regarded as fundamentally biased toward Israel by most Arabs.

But only a few days later, the momentous shift seemed nothing more than a wrong choice of words. Bush, standing by a smiling Sharon told reporters he understood the “fence” was a “sensitive issue” to Israel, and merely sought to ensure that the “fence sends the right signals.”

Palestinians, of course, are looking for more than a pleasant justification of why 10 percent of the West Bank will be cut off by Israel, or why scores of villages and thousands of Palestinians will find themselves encircled by a giant fortified wall much longer than that of Berlin’s.

Amid U.S. continued hesitancy to take a strong stance against Israel’s failure to abide by the demands of the road map, the once promising peace initiative is likely to be remembered, at best, as a ceasefire that never lasted.

The release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were due to be released within a very short period of time anyway, was accompanied by arrest campaigns. On Aug. 6, even Palestinian security officers were not spared from the Israeli sweep, as 18 were nabbed in the Palestinian town of Jericho.

Palestinians, although cheerful at seeing busloads of freed Palestinian prisoners, are growing uneasy over what some believe to be an “Israeli trick,” accusing Sharon’s government of using the 6,000 prisoners as a bargaining chip.

Palestinian uneasiness is growing much more rapidly over the delicate issue of settlements. Although the road map forbids Israel from building more settlements, Israel establishes more every day. The Israeli government is not even secretive about the violation, for it solicits bids to build settlements using large ads in Hebrew newspapers.

Violence is likely to erupt much sooner under the road map than under the Oslo accords. It will hardly take seven years for the already skeptical Palestinians to realize that their fate is worsening and for Abbas to drift out of the spotlight — neither able to satisfy Israel’s demands nor able to tell the Palestinians, “I told you that abandoning armed struggle would pay off.”

The only variable that can be affective in avoiding a total disaster is a more balanced U.S. role that exerts equal pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. While Bush’s government seems resolved on what it expects from Abbas’ government, its stance toward Sharon is marred by hesitancy, indecisiveness and often “unconditional support.”

Chances are that history’s vicious cycle will continue to roll, grinding the Middle East into violence and chaos once more. This time there won’t be years of calm before the storm, and this time the cost is likely to be higher.