03/21/2005, 00.00
israel - palestine - holy land

Holy Land towards peace or towards a Third Intifadah?

Arieh Cohen

AsiaNews correspondent gives us an analysis on the signs of hope and the ambiguities and menaces hanging on the future of the Middle East.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - There  is an air of cautious optimism in the Holy Land, fed by an extraordinary amount of political and diplomatic activity, from the  Sharm el-Sheikh meeting of the Palestinian President Abbas and Israel's Prime Minister Sharon, hosted by Egypt's President Mubarak and with the support of Jordan's King Abdallah II, to the Arab League meeting in Algiers, where Jordan is proposing a re-endorsement of the historic March 2002 Arab League resolution offering Israel comprehensive peace with the Arab world upon the ending of the occupation [of Palestinian lands] that began in 1967 (to use President Bush's well-known formulation). Meanwhile there are on-going intensive talks between Egypt and  Israel on the follow-up to Israel's announced withdrawal of its armed forces and its settlers from the Gaza Strip. And the PLO / Palestinian National Authority leadership has held meetings with Palestinian dissident organisations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have agreed to continuing - at least for the rest of this year - the suspension of armed attacks on Israelis,  while a new Palestinian political architecture is being worked out, in which these organisations too will take part. Hamas, for its part, appears ready to participate in Palestinian legislative elections planned for this summer, thereby accomplishing, it is hoped, a transformation from an armed organisation bent on opposing the peace process, to a political party committed to playing by the rules. Ministers and envoys from Europe and elsewhere are constantly coming and going and talking and writing, and proposing and mediating and encouraging both sides to persevere in the quest for  peace. And the greater security on the ground, in Israel and the occupied West Bank, has brought about a visible revival of tourism and pilgrimages. Much tried, and tired, civilian populations are breathing audible sighs of relief.

Signs of pessimism

Others are less optimistic, and recall the cycles of hope and bitter disappointment typical of the 1990's.  No doubt the new prospects are fragile, and the number of variables considerable.

In Israel, tension is mounting as the Government is trying very hard to get parliament to pass the budget by the 31 of March. If the Government fails, and it does not at present have a majority in parliament  to pass the budget, the unicameral parliament, the Knesset, will be dissolved and new elections held later in the spring. This would derail the planned withdrawal from Gaza, and cast a pall of uncertainty over everything else. Which is exactly what most of the Government's opponents wish for.  The extreme right wing's threats to sabotage the planned withdrawal from Gaza are growing louder and more strident by the day, and the Israeli security services are sharing with the Government and the public their fears of some truly extreme and violent action, such as an assault by Israeli nationalist extremists on the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount, as well as attempts on the life of the Prime Minister of other key Government figures. The extremists are likewise threatening to block major roads and generally to create confusion and mayhem throughout the nation, and to undermine the armed forces as well, through mass refusals to carry out orders associated with the withdrawal from Gaza.

In the Palestinian territories, Hamas is likely to win significant representation in the legislative elections, and thereby perhaps make it far more difficult for peace negotiators.

In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli settlements continue to grow, and to consume the Palestinians' land and water. In Jerusalem, the Wall continues to be built that will divide the Palestinian part of Jerusalem from the neighbouring areas of the West Bank, and cut through Palestinian neighbourhoods as well, sometimes separating even husbands and wives from each other and from their children, as well as tens of thousands of people from their schools, clinics, hospitals, their places of work and their places of worship. Between them, the growth of the settlements and the planned completion of the Wall in Jerusalem may represent the most serious obstacle to confidence in the prospects for peace.

 What kind of "peace process"?

Most important of all though is the question of the precise objective of the interminable, intermittent "peace process". Palestinian President Abbas is calling on Israel to resume negotiations for a definitive peace treaty. The Sharon Government is not prepared to do that. Its  position is that such a peace treaty must be left to an indefinite future date, and that all that must be accomplished now is agreement on an interim situation, not unlike that experienced between 1995 and 2000, with Palestinians having a limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and the whole of Gaza, and with Israel free to continue its settlement activities in the rest of the West Bank. Right now any major diplomatic confrontation over these differences is being  postponed until after the withdrawal from Gaza. There is no way to foresee what may happen if the withdrawal is effectively prevented by Israel's right wing extremists, through either parliamentary or "extra-parliamentary" means. If and when the withdrawal takes place, it will be up to the United States - and to a slightly lesser extent, Europe - to decide whether to press for a peace treaty (as President Abbas wishes) or to concentrate instead on consolidating an indefinite "interim" (as Prime Minister Sharon prefers).  If they decide to allow this "interim" though, without an end to further settlement activities, and without a radical modification to the Jerusalem Wall, the anger and frustration of the Palestinian "street" may well boil over once more, resulting in a Third Intifadah, and further bloodshed and destruction. In unleashing such a further round, militants will be encouraged by the thought that it was the Second Intifadah that made Israel decide to withdraw from Gaza; in other words, that taking up arms is an effective way - and the only effective way - to roll back the occupation and the accompanying colonisation of their land. Israel calls the withdrawal a "disengagement", but it is hard not to conclude that it is indeed a "withdrawal" , a "retreat", born of the realisation that the Palestinian armed uprising has made the cost of continued occupation too high to bear. The U.S. and Europe have a few months now - not many - to think through their positions and plan carefully for the day after the Gaza withdrawal. Their conclusions from such a review will determine whether the peoples of the Holy Land are headed for a new era of peace and prosperity, or are to be condemned to a repetition of the bloodletting, fear and suffering of the last few years. God willing, wise counsels will prevail.

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