A new degree of volatility

Print edition : August 17, 2002

The Quartet Group's efforts for a lasting solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may come a cropper without the support of all the countries in the region and an end to the violence.

POLITICAL tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians are running high as both sides confront a new wave of violence. Israeli forces are sitting in most Palestinian cities in the West Bank - the territory west of the river Jordan, which the Palestinians are supposed to govern themselves. The Israelis justify their invasion by claiming the presence of "terror networks" in these areas.

In making its case for occupation, Israel cites the spate of suicide bombings that have rocked many Israeli cities, including Jerusalem and its economic hub and capital Tel Aviv. Israeli insecurity has been heightened by the recent attack in Jerusalem's Hebrew University that killed nine people, including five students from the United States. This was followed by an attack on an Israeli bus, which killed another nine and wounded 49.

The Quartet Group on West Asia, comprising the U.S. and Russia, and the E.U. and the U.N., meeting in New York on July 16.-AFP UNITED NATIONS

The deprivations faced by the Palestinians are enormous. Out of 125,000 people who once worked in Israel, only around 7,000 can now cross the green line that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel. This right may also be snatched away, as Israel, in the wake of the recent incidents, has decided to seal off the northern half of the West Bank. Restricted movement of Palestinians from the southern West Bank cities of Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho into Israel is still allowed.

The suffering inside the curfew-bound Palestinian territories is alarming. A recent United Nations survey indicates that malnutrition, especially among Palestinian children, is rising rapidly. The Palestinian woes have been compounded by the use of excessive force by Israel. In what appears to be a benchmark of sorts, Israel took the unprecedented step of dropping a one-tonne bomb from an F-16 fighter jet on a Palestinian apartment complex. While the attack killed the military chief of the Hamas group, Salah Shehade, it also took the lives of nine Palestinian children, raising an international outcry and calls for revenge by Hamas. This incident, which Israel has attributed to an intelligence failure, has generated a spiral of retributive violence that includes the university attack and the bombing of the bus close to Israel's border with Lebanon. As expected, the Hamas has taken responsibility for both the incidents, amid declarations that its revenge campaign will continue.

DESPITE the suffering, a halt to the violence seems unlikely. Israel, in the wake of "terrorist" attacks, is being pushed into using even more violence. It is now considering the unpopular step of sending into exile some family members of suicide bombers who have aided these attacks. After the Jerusalem bombing, a debate on whether to withdraw the Israeli citizenship of some Israeli Arabs on security grounds is on. In case this move is implemented, it would undermine further Israel's stock abroad and raise questions about violations of international law.

To make any headway, Israel has to separate the "extremists" whom it wants to punish and build bridges with the remaining Palestinians. Despite this being its stated intent, Israel currently finds itself incapable of isolating and targeting "terrorists" while reaching out to Palestinians and easing the hardship for those who are not involved in "terrorism".

The Hamas, on its part, is compounding Israel's problem. By keeping the violence up, it is seemingly pushing Israel into more closures and curfews. This gives the impression that Israel is imposing collective punishment on all Palestinians, thereby undermining its security objectives. Given the level of "success" of its recent bombing attacks, it is unlikely that the Hamas would withdraw from its violent campaign.

With the graph of violence rising, a recent political initiative that lays out a road map for a comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian question faces the threat of getting marginalised. This is the initiative of the Quartet Group comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Abiding by the Israeli demand that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has to be sidelined, and that the Palestinian security set-up should be revamped, the Quartet Group, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, met in New York in mid-July. It, however, went far beyond accommodating the Israeli proposals and agreed to work in tandem on three tracks, covering the political, economic and humanitarian aspects of the Israel-Palestine situation.

On the political side, it focussed on providing durable security to Israel by calling for an end to terrorism and endorsing a plan that would revamp the Palestinian security establishment. Security reforms, it proposed, would be governed by what has been described as the new Tenet Plan, worked out by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief George Tenet. This plan, according to reports, envisages the centralisation of the Palestinian security establishment under a single chain of command. It also visualises the formation of a new, professionally trained force that will take over Palestinian cities step by step. The introduction of the new force could be, but not necessarily, linked to the phased Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. The Egyptian intelligence and security establishment will play a major role in training the new force, with special emphasis on the requirements for the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is a frequent visitor to Israel and also has good contacts among Palestinians, appears to have already played a major role in recasting the hierarchy in the Palestinian security establishment. The Palestinians, probably under Egyptian influence, recently appointed Abed Razek Yahyah as the new Interior Minister along with a new security chief. Mohammed Dahlan, an influential new-generation Palestinian leader who is reportedly acceptable to both the Israelis and the Americans as a future Palestinian leader, has been brought in as Arafat's chief security adviser.

Arafat's status was a major aspect that the Quartet Group discussed. The U.S. has apparently agreed to the face-saving formula that would discard Arafat, but not humiliate him. A proposal espoused by the Germans, which the Americans appear to back, visualises Arafat's elevation to the figurehead post of President and the creation of the post of Prime Minister, who would exercise real power. To implement this step, however, the Palestinian Constitution would have to be recast. The Quartet Group, therefore, appointed an influential committee to study the constitutional and legal aspects that would govern Palestinians in the future.

The Arab countries have not yet publicly stated their stance on a figurehead role for Arafat, but appear to have accepted it in principle. Having arrived at a provisional agreement on Arafat, the Quartet Group is now discussing how quickly a new Prime Minister can be appointed. The Americans feel that this should be done quickly, but the others are inclined to wait until the elections to the Palestinian Authority, which are likely to be held in January, are over.

On the economic side, the Quartet Group has roped in key financial institutions - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - as well as Japan to look at national reconstruction in a future Palestinian state. Under the group's scheme, the U.N. will oversee humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and Secretary-General Kofi Annan is reportedly seeking the services of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell for this purpose. Mitchell, incidentally, is the author of the Mitchell Plan formulated last year, which sought to ease tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians by advocating a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and calling upon the Palestinians to prevent terrorism.

While the Quartet Group did strive to provide a blueprint for achieving lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it may not have taken the necessary steps to prevent its plans from being torpedoed by groups such as the Hamas. While the Quartet Group has taken on board influential countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia by inviting some of them to its meeting, it may have left out key players who could exercise leverage over the Hamas. For instance, the group has left out Iran, which reportedly exercises considerable influence over the Hamas. The Hamas has allegedly trained with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon with the backing of Iran. By publicly rebuking Iran's moderate President, Mohammed Khatami, the U.S. has further distanced itself from Teheran. It had earlier declared Iran as part of an international "axis of evil", clubbing it with Iraq and North Korea.

The U.S. is keeping Saudi Arabia, another country that may be able to influence the behaviour of the Hamas, within its fold, but it may not be able to persuade Riyadh to exert itself sufficiently against the militant group. Despite official statements to the contrary, relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia appear to have been soured by the September 11 attacks in the U.S., in which people of Saudi origin were involved. The threat that the Hamas poses to a rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians is therefore real, and the situation is likely to remain that way in the near future.

THE U.S. plan to attack Iraq is another danger that could pull the Israelis and The Palestinians further apart. A U.S. attack at the present juncture, when its muscle-flexing is already being viewed with some anxiety in the region, is likely to inflame Arab passions greatly. Saudi Arabia, which has been a springboard for U.S. military action in the region in the past, has already opposed a military strike against Iraq. In fact, the Saudis recently took the unprecedented step of espousing their objections jointly with one-time rival Iran. As if to demonstrate Islamic solidarity, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal made a one-day visit to Teheran to make the declaration opposing a U.S. attack. Other countries in the region opposed to military action against Baghdad have all been major U.S. strategic partners. For instance, Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet has its headquarters, has expressed the view that a U.S. attack on Iraq will be a disaster. Oman, a U.S. ally, has opposed the move and that too in the company of Iran, which its Foreign Minister visited recently.

Not surprisingly, an attack on Iraq would generate in the Arab world a supercharged atmosphere against the U.S. and Israel, overriding the sentiment of compromise that is necessary for a rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While the odds are against a sustained political dialogue in the coming days, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres revived talks with the Palestinian leadership by meeting the Palestinian Interior and Finance Ministers. These contacts have resulted in the release of the first instalment of $15 million of Palestinian funds that Israel had frozen in the wake of recent terrorist incidents.

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