terrorism doesn't pay (2)
mark.jones at tiscali.co.uk
Thu Sep 20 02:59:15 MDT 2001
FT: An uneasy truce
Pressure from Washington and Europe has forced Yassir Arafat and Ariel
Sharon into a ceasefire. Whether the calm lasts may depend on factors
outside their control, writes Ralph Atkins
Published: September 19 2001 20:21 | Last Updated: September 19 2001 20:32
In the hours immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, appeared more convinced
than ever that Israel could control by military force the year-long
Tanks had tightened their siege of the West Bank town of Jenin as part of
the escalating military involvement in Palestinian-controlled areas. Yassir
Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was another Osama bin Laden, Mr Sharon told
Colin Powell, the US secretary of state. In the week that followed, at
least 25 Palestinians and five Israelis died as Israel's military
operations spread from Jenin to Jericho and Ramallah and to the Gaza strip.
By yesterday, however - the last day of the Jewish New Year holiday - the
world-changing effects of the attack on the US had forced a reappraisal.
Under pressure from the US and Europe, both anxious to include Arab nations
in the international coalition against terrorism, Mr Sharon had responded
to a ceasefire pledge by Mr Arafat by ordering an end to offensive military
operations. Israeli troops were pulled out of those areas of the West Bank
granted autonomy under the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. The guns in the
West Bank and Gaza have been largely silenced.
The prospects for calm in the region appear brighter than they have been
for months. "Nobody should get carried away," says Joel Peters,
international relations expert at Ben Gurion university, but "given enough
time and attention, you could get some kind of stability pact locked in and
a period of stability could lead back to the negotiating table".
The change in Mr Sharon's approach was partly the result of overplaying his
hand. Unilaterally targeting Mr Arafat in the international fight against
terrorism played badly in Washington, not to mention European capitals.
Washington, although keeping its distance from the Palestinian leader,
regards Mr Arafat as a partner in any peace process. Since the attacks on
New York and Washington, the US has been looking beyond the disputed Holy
Land as it prepares its response to last week's attack. "It was anxious
that there should not be problems in the Middle East," says one western
But Shlomo Brom, senior research associate at the Jaffee centre for
strategic studies, says Mr Sharon would not have been deflected simply by
international criticism. The decision to withdraw from positions seized in
the West Bank reflected more a determination not to be outmanoeuvred by Mr
Arafat. "The government didn't want to create a situation in which Mr
Arafat can put the blame [for violence] on it," Mr Brom says.
The crisis in the US has placed a different set of pressures on the
Palestinian leader. Mr Arafat realised he had to avoid the strategic
mistake of the 1991 Gulf war, when he sided with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi
leader. Even though most Palestinians distrust the US for its perceived
pro-Israeli bias, within hours of last week's attacks in Washington and New
York Mr Arafat was condemning the perpetrators unequivocally and publicly
donating blood for victims.
By early this week, after discussions with European and United Nations'
envoys, he was persuaded that America's tragedy offered a chance to make
political advances in the Middle East. "He perceived, with help from some
friends, that this was an opportunity," says one European who took part in
The ceasefire call, broadcast yesterday in Arabic on Palestinian television
and radio, provided Mr Sharon with an opportunity to change tack. His
"national unity" coalition government has been divided on the best response
to the US tragedy. While the prime minister was initially persuaded by the
rightwingers in his cabinet that this was the time to isolate Mr Arafat,
there had been opposing voices from the start, in particular from the
foreign office. Shimon Peres, the veteran foreign minister who was the
architect of the Oslo peace process, argued that the US attacks should be
used as a chance to bring Mr Arafat into an international alliance against
Israel's embassy in Washington, conscious of the sensitivities,
specifically warned against labeling Mr Arafat a "bin Laden". The prime
minister's own advisers cautioned him against including the
Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the "war of civilisations" allegedly
unleashed by the Saudi dissident. Israel's conflict with Mr Arafat was to a
large extent territorial, one said, "but we're seeing forces trying to drag
us into the dark corners of religion".
The danger was of further polarising the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and
strengthening the hands of vehemently anti-US Islamist groups, such as
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have gained popularity among ordi nary
Palestinians and reject talk of a ceasefire with Israel.
Mr Sharon dispatched his son Omri on Sunday night to meet Mr Arafat and
make clear that, if the Palestinian leader could secure 48 hours of quiet,
a formal meeting on truce talks could take place between the Palestinian
leader and the Israeli foreign minister. Yesterday European diplomats were
hoping that such a summit would now take place within hours.
Diplomatic efforts will be focused on holding Mr Arafat and Mr Sharon to
the ceasefire. US attention may be diverted by war preparations, but Javier
Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has been dogged in
seeking a meeting between Mr Arafat and Mr Peres. European diplomats are
also involved in implementing the ceasefire.
Whether the ceasefire holds depends on several factors. Most immediately
there is the threat of attacks against Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad,
which have stepped up suicide bombings inside Israel in recent months. Both
groups have rejected the ceasefire: Mr Arafat's ability to restrain them
depends on his tactics yielding results. As one diplomat puts it, the
Palestinian leader "is not in total control unless things are in his favour".
The calm could also be threatened once the US launches military action
against the perpetrators of the New York and Washington attacks. Strikes
against Arab states or Islamist groups in the region may unleash a backlash
against Israel. In the Gulf war, Yitzhak Shamir, the then Israeli prime
minister, refrained from military retaliation when Iraq fired Scud missiles
at Israel; Mr Sharon's tactics as prime minister have been to respond to
every provocation with a more than equal response.
But the prospects for calm in the Middle East also depend on the actions of
Mr Sharon himself. At 73, his instinct, after a career in the army, is
still to keep his enemy off balance. He will continue to seek to deny Mr
Arafat legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, arguing that
previous ceasefires have soon broken down.
Sa'eb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, says maintaining a ceasefire
will require more than a withdrawal from Jenin. Without the lifting of
Israel's military siege of Palestinian areas and the easing of restrictions
on the movement in the occupied territories of the 3m-strong Palestinian
population, he says, "I don't think anything is going to be tolerated on
So far Mr Sharon has kept a tight secret the political concessions he is
prepared to offer Palestinians in return for peace. But if the ceasefire
continues, the outline adopted universally by the international community -
the report by former Senator George Mitchell on ending the intifada,
published in May - would require steps such as freezing the growth of
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and withdrawing troops further.
After a year of worsening conflict, the crisis in the US has created an
unexpected opening for dialogue. But with the region tense as it awaits the
US response, that window may close just as quickly. As Mr Brom says: "It is
an opportunity - but the situation is so sensitive that it could be easily
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