Peace Roadblock

It is just as many of us feared.

Only about two weeks after Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a cease fire between their respective nations, Israel and Palestine, the hope for Mideast peace is already in jeopardy.

Five people died and about 30 were wounded in a suicide bombing at Tel Aviv’s Stage nightclub last Friday. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a Palestinian militant group, has claimed responsibility for what was the first deadly attack on Israel since November; some Israeli officials accuse Syria of playing a role in the blast as well. (For its part, Syria denies any role.)

Right after the Feb. 8 truce announcement, I said that the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine would depend on how much time Sharon would allow the new Palestinian president to work on stopping terrorist attacks by militants who did not respect the cease fire. Well, it appears time is running out. Addressing his cabinet, Sharon announced that he will escalate military action and freeze peace efforts unless Abbas stops anti-Israel violence now.

“There will not be any diplomatic progress, I repeat, no diplomatic progress, until the Palestinians take vigorous action to wipe out the terror groups and their infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority’s territory,” Sharon said. In essence, he is giving Abbas an “immediate test” — deal with the terrorists or else. Adding to the bad news, Israel reportedly is reconsidering its promise to free 400 Palestinian prisoners in addition to the 500 released last week. I don’t expect Palestine would take such threats lightly.

Was anyone surprised about Friday’s attack at the Stage? Right after the truce announcement, Hamas and Islamic Jihad stated quite clearly that they would not respect the cease fire. Sad to say, the bombing was inevitable. So is Sharon’s retaliatory response. But Ha’aretz‘s Uzi Benziman notes a difference:

Without reducing the severity of the attack, one should remember, all the same, that the Palestinian response to it is different than in the past. The terrorist organizations washed their hands of it, and Jerusalem tended yesterday to believe them (although the inquiry into the circumstances of the incident is not complete). The statements issued by Abu Mazen’s bureau, that the attack was directed against the effort to calm the conflict, shows good powers of observation, but must be followed up with practical conclusions. …

Israel’s demand of Abu Mazen is justified – the measures he has taken so far to reduce the threats to Israel’s security and to strengthen his leadership in the PA are impressive, but he must remember that the Israeli restraint has limitations. If, God forbid, last night’s bombing had killed 20 people, the Israeli reaction would have been completely different and the conflict would have taken a violent turn.

Israel must also learn a lesson. Abu Mazen deserves further credit and a great deal of patience. Moreover, despite Israel’s declarations that it has stopped the Israel Defense Forces’ preemptive activity in the territories, IDF troops are continuing to carry out arrests and occasionally open fire at Palestinians and cause casualties, although these acts do not fall into the category of “neutralizing ticking bombs.” Since there are quite a few bodies striving to inflame the conflict again, both sides’ leaderships must do everything to stop them.

Indeed, the ball appears to be primarily in Abbas’ court. The militants must be stopped; the world will accept nothing less, and the resumption of the peace process depends upon it. At the same time, Israel has to be realistic. Two weeks is not nearly enough time to “wipe out the terror groups and their infrastructures.” And as Benziman says, Israel’s hands are not squeaky-clean either. As tough as it is, and as tragic as Friday’s bombing was — and it will not be the last, I fear — if both nations are sincere about waging peace, they are going to have to work to stop violence on both sides and, from time to time, give the other side a break. Peace takes time — and restraint.

Does peace have a chance here? The BBC offers a wide array of world opinion.

Personally, I have a couple of questions. How in the world can Abbas rein in Palestinian terrorists? And how can he even have a chance if Sharon is just all too ready to send in Israeli troops and keep his occupation going? Friday’s attack obviously was meant to hurt both the Palestinian Authority and Israel by throwing a wrench into the peace process. If Sharon makes good on his threats, isn’t he playing into the terrorists’ hands and thwarting his stated wishes for peace?

My cautious optimism is waning, but if they truly want peace, I do wish Abbas and Sharon much luck.

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