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The Peace Process and Pretending

David Sarasohn, Associate Editor, The Oregonian
Aug. 15, 2001

When Israeli tanks and bulldozers leveled the police station in the Palestinian town of Jenin on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders were shocked. Former peace negotiator Saeb Erekat called it part of an Israeli effort "to undermine the peace process and to undermine the Palestinian Authority."

Last week, when Israeli forces occupied Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders were appalled. Another former negotiator called the action "very serious and very dangerous."

But the day before, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Jerusalem restaurant, killing 15 and wounding as many as 100, Palestinian spokesmen didn't consider that a bad sign for the peace process. Marwan Barghouti, leader of the militia for Fatah, Arafat's political group, called such attacks "the only way to end occupation of Palestinian territories."

Yasser Abed Rabbo, Palestinian Authority information minister, explained it was all the fault of Israel's Prime Minister: "(Ariel) Sharon provoked these attacks. He wanted, and waited for, them."

With those responses, Israelis may be wondering just what peace process was being endangered by the seizure of Orient House or the attacks in Jenin.

"Today," says former U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, "there is no process, and no hope."

Eight years after the process began, there is no proposal on the table. The Israeli proposal offered at Camp David has been revoked, after a new wave of Palestinian violence led -- for the second time -- to the election of a harder-line Israeli government. Except for a restatement of their original demands, there never has been a Palestinian Authority proposal: PA negotiators reportedly suggested compromises and proposals at Camp David and afterwards, but have never publicly supported any compromise.

Israelis have been offered no proposals and repeated atrocities. The response to the Camp David proposals was not a counteroffer but an assault.

The PA's public position has always been that for the Palestinians to be offered anything less than everything is humiliating. Arafat's apologists insist that he is limited by Palestinian public opinion, but for eight years there has been no effort to prepare Palestinians for any compromise. Instead, there has been constant incitement and, from religious officials named by Arafat, calls for holy war to eliminate Israel entirely and for more suicide bombers.

It's not hard to see why warnings that seizing Orient House will derail the peace process don't greatly worry Israel. It's also not hard to see why Israelis see less and less difference between their alleged peace partners of the Palestinian Authority and the suicide bombers and snipers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

It gets even harder when the Palestinian Authority talks about inviting Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the government, and when the murderer in the Jerusalem pizza restaurant was six weeks earlier a member of the Palestinian police force. One thing that Arafat might do, even as he pleads helplessness to stop suicide bombers, is to ask other Middle East leaders he constantly invokes how they'd react to repeated terrorist attacks launched against their citizens. Syria's response might be particularly interesting.

The response of the United States, despite its calls for restraint, is hardly open to question: The United States fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan in far less focused attacks than the Israelis have launched. American leaders now urge on Israel a restraint that might be politically suicidal for a U.S. leader.

Besides, Israel has already tried that, doing remarkably little after a suicide bomber murdered 21 teen-agers in Tel Aviv June 1. That didn't work, either.

There will be no "New Middle East," of peaceful coexistence and economic cooperation. It seems less and less likely there will be any negotiated settlement at all.

But the present situation is intolerable for all sides. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak talks about a unilateral peace, in which Israel withdraws from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank and defends the rest with fences and not much "restraint."

On the subject of peace, Israelis may have to just talk to each other.