Mideast Leaders Look Homeward


By James Bennet

New York Times
June 4, 2003

Locked in conflict, fearing for their very existence as nations, Israelis and Palestinians have for generations prized national unity, deferring or papering over internal disputes about the means and ends of their struggles. But before even hoping to end the conflict with each other, each side must first face up to these conflicts within itself, according to the iron logic of a new international peace plan. Today, President Bush secured commitments from Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, to begin doing just that.

Mr. Sharon promised to begin confronting the settler movement he nurtured for decades. That means plunging into a long-postponed national debate, which Mr. Sharon has tentatively begun, over what Israel wants from its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it captured in the 1967 war and where it has now settled 200,000 of its citizens. Mr. Abbas promised to end the armed Palestinian uprising and to permit only law enforcement officers to carry guns. That means stopping the terrorists who have hijacked the Palestinian national dream and shifting the internal Palestinian conversation away from empathy for suicide bombers to horror at the killing. To make peace in the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians may have to come to the brink of what they fear could be civil conflict. If they are sincere about seeing this process through, each of the leaders here, including President Bush, will have to take severe political tests, and all of them will have to pass.

Tonight in Jerusalem, thousands of settlers gathered to angrily protest today's summit, accusing their old ally, Mr. Sharon, of surrendering to terrorism. In the Gaza Strip, leaders of Hamas rejected Mr. Abbas's suggestion that they surrender their arms. It seemed fitting that these men took this leadership challenge upon themselves in Aqaba, which translates as "obstacle." They met down the beach from the ruins of a fort captured in 1917 by Lawrence of Arabia during a previous attempt to reshape the Middle East. On each side of this triangular summit, doubts weighed heavily about the depth of the others' commitments.

Palestinian officials fear that Mr. Sharon's talk of dismantling "unauthorized outposts" of settlements was meant merely to create political theater, to generate an appearance of Israeli sacrifice for peace without much cost to the settlement movement. In recent years, settlers have set up dozens of these makeshift outposts of trailers and tents on hilltops across the West Bank, sometimes populating them with only a handful of people, if anyone.

Yet evacuating any outpost is almost sure to generate searing images of settlers screaming at soldiers and perhaps even fighting with them, as they have in the past. Then, after a time, the outposts can easily be set up again, as they have been. As an obstacle to a geographically contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, these outposts pale beside giant settlements like Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim, with some 20,000 residents or more, or beside smaller but deeply rooted settlements like Itamar, near Nablus. Those settlements are untouched so far by the peace plan. "The settlements are perfectly legitimate," Alan Baker, the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, said, drawing a distinction between them and the relatively few outposts that Israel considers illegal.

During the 10 years of the Oslo agreement, which unlike this plan did not explicitly address settlements, the population of the settlements doubled. The new plan, though, calls for a freeze on settlement growth, which Mr. Sharon did not address today. It was perhaps significant that Mr. Sharon spoke in English, not in Hebrew. Israeli leaders have often accused Palestinian leaders, particularly Yasir Arafat, of speaking in English and not Arabic when they delivered messages that were popular with the Americans but not necessarily with their own people.

Yet at 75, Mr. Sharon, an architect of the settlement movement as a means of promoting Israel's security, has unique credentials to question whether settlements now safeguard or endanger Israel's existence by perpetuating the occupation. "It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians," he said today. A peaceful Palestinian democracy, he continued, "will promote the long-term security and well-being of Israel as a Jewish state."

Like Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas, who spoke in Arabic, was careful to couch his endorsement of the peace plan not just in idealistic terms but in hard-nosed language about his people's national interests. In renouncing "terror against the Israelis wherever they may be," he said that "such methods" clashed with Palestinians' religious and moral traditions. "These methods also conflict with the kind of state we wish to build, based on human rights and rule of law," he said.

Yet Mr. Abbas's remarks were not without a note of ambiguity. Even as he ruled out violence to deal with occupation, he said that Palestinians would be partners in "the international war against occupation and terrorism," according to the White House translation of his remarks. After more than a month, Mr. Abbas's oratory about stopping violence has yet to be put to the test. Mr. Abbas has been trying to negotiate a cease fire with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other violent groups, rather than to arrest those intent on violence, and to confiscate arms.

Mr. Abbas told Mr. Bush today that it would take him a couple of more weeks to persuade Hamas to agree to stop the violence, Palestinian officials said. Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, said that Mr. Abbas could work only through persuasion, because Israeli raids had left him without police forces. Yet Muhammad Dahlan, Mr. Abbas's security minister, has thousands of armed men under this control. Mr. Abbas does not have nearly Mr. Sharon's domestic political strength. But he has credibility as a warhorse of the mainstream Fatah movement and as a Palestinian refugee of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Perhaps most important, he has gained international legitimacy.

Palestinian officials said tonight that they had achieved their chief goals for the summit, reviving a relationship with the United States that has been all but dead for more than a year, and gaining what they saw as a clear American commitment to the peace plan. Diplomats who know him say Mr. Abbas understands he will lose this critical asset, international credibility and support, if he fails to act against terrorists. Indeed, the risks to national unity may have been apparent today, but so were the risks of not risking unity, as demonstrated by the man who was not there: Mr. Arafat. Mr. Arafat led his people from behind, never completely alienating any group or excluding any option, including terrorism. "He wanted national unity," said one diplomat who has studied him closely. "But you can't have national unity while you have people getting blown up in coffee shops."

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