Cycle of violence

By James Kitfield

June 17, 2003

In the search for peace in the Middle East, violence often follows the olive branch like night trailing day. Even by the standards of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the speed with which violence reasserted its grim calculus on the peace equation after the June 4 Aqaba summit has been disquieting.

In part, Aqaba was seen as the most hopeful moment in nearly three bloody years of conflict precisely because events had compelled the three leaders gathered at the Red Sea resort to play against character. In proclaiming their commitment to a "road map" to peace outlining a two-state solution, all three politicians infuriated core domestic constituencies.

New Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas not only renounced violence, for instance, but also pledged to disarm Palestinian extremist groups. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who helped pioneer the settlement movement more than two decades ago precisely to thwart the founding of a Palestinian state, promised to begin dismantling settlement outposts as an initial step toward creating just such an entity.

President Bush, whose interest in the Middle East peace process has been episodic at best, staked much of the political capital he had accrued in the region from the quick victory in Iraq on brokering a peace deal. Bush even named confidant and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as his point person on the peace process. And he established the first permanent U.S. monitoring group in the region to chart progress on the road map.

As always, the forces of opposition to a negotiated peace sprang into action. Even as settlers marched in protest against Sharon's statements, the day after the summit Israeli forces killed two Palestinian gunmen who were reportedly plotting terrorist attacks. In a rare coordinated attack on June 8, the three major Palestinian extremist groups-Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades-killed five Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On June 10, Israeli helicopter gunships launched two attacks in an attempt to assassinate Hamas leaders, killing five Palestinians and wounding more than 60 others, including leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The attacks drew an unusually sharp rebuke of Israel by President Bush. On June 11, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, killing 16 and wounding dozens. Bush condemned the bombing and urged all nations to use their influence to prevent further attacks. Hours later, the Israelis retaliated with another rocket attack on Gaza, which killed seven Arabs. The death toll since Aqaba: 22 Palestinians, 21 Israelis.

The new round of violence is likely to pierce the veil of hopeful rhetoric at Aqaba and to reveal more clearly the true positions of the three leaders who gathered there. Sharon's decision to strike at the top Hamas leadership so aggressively and at such an early milepost in the road map implies to some analysts, for instance, that he has not changed his hard-line attitudes as much as his recent proclamations have suggested.

"Sharon's evolving position is intriguing, because he has in fact broken a taboo of the Israeli right wing by calling Israel's rule over the Palestinians an `occupation,' suggesting to some observers that he may be finally serious about reaching a peace based on a two-state solution," said Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic history at Hebrew University, speaking at a recent forum at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "There are many Israeli and Arab analysts who believe, however, that Sharon is not serious and is instead playing a kind of game where he trusts that the actions of Hamas will scuttle the peace process for him. I hope I'm wrong, but that is my evaluation of Sharon's vision."

The past week's violence also suggests that Abbas is both unable and unwilling to confront the Palestinian extremist groups except through a dialogue in which they have shown little interest. "I've known Abbas for 10 years, and I'm convinced that he sincerely believes the intifada has been a disaster for Palestinians," said Edward Abington, a Middle East expert and former U.S. diplomat who now consults for the Palestinian Authority. "In the past two years, however, Israel has destroyed the Palestinian security services, and until Israel cooperates with Abbas on security issues, he won't be able to deliver what they are asking."

Perhaps surprisingly, the present crisis suggests that the leader who may have undergone the most genuine catharsis on the issue of Middle East peace is Bush. "I still don't think the Israelis or Palestinians really understand where Bush is coming from," Abington said. "My advice to them is to take Bush at his word, because whether it's tax cuts or terrorism, once he makes up his mind to do something, it's best to stay out of his way-and never double-cross him. As his unequivocal criticism of the Israeli attacks makes pretty clear, I think Bush is determined to implement the road map."

By James Kitfield

June 17, 2003