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Created: August 22, 2003
Latest Update: August 22, 2003
August 23, 2003
The Illusions of Progress
By JAMES BENNET
[J] ERUSALEM, Aug. 22 — "Great and hopeful change is coming to the Middle East," President Bush declared on June 4, as he stood with the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, and Mr. Sharon's Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Appearing at a summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, they presented a picture of shared determination to achieve lasting peace.
Since then, the image the Palestinians have sought to project has been of a unilateral halt to violence. For the Israelis, it has been of earnest concessions, including troops withdrawn and prisoners released.
The White House hoped that reality would bend to match these images, as the adversaries gained some confidence in each other and came to enjoy the benefits of a new atmosphere of calm.
But the images, already blurred, were erased this week, as a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 people, including six children, aboard a city bus and Israeli forces raced back to their old positions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Just one crucial image remained from the peace process, that of a new Palestinian leadership, and it was fading fast.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged the underlying reality on Thursday when he urged Yasir Arafat, the pre-eminent Palestinian leader and a pariah to Washington, to help the government of Prime Minister Abbas. Palestinian ministers acknowledged the reality when some spoke today of possibly dissolving that government. "I don't think we can handle all of these burdens and complexities that come with this new wave of violence," said Ziad Abu Amr, the minister of culture. "Nobody is helping this government."
The Bush administration now confronts a grim reality: that nothing fundamental has yet changed here, despite the war in Iraq and the new peace plan known as the road map; that there are still two peoples with clashing visions of an equitable split of this land and contempt for each other's leaders, if not each other.
"All sides have made important commitments, and the United States will strive to see these commitments fulfilled," Mr. Bush said that day in Aqaba.
After that, the two prime ministers met, and for a time sustained a public image of good will. But commitments were not kept. Palestinians did not begin to dismantle violent groups, as called for in the peace plan and most desired by Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad were using their unilateral cease-fire to re-arm, Palestinian officials acknowledged.
Israel returned security control to the Palestinians only of very limited areas, ones that it had been prepared to give back under a different peace initiative a year ago. It made sure its concessions were instantly reversible, as demonstrated today by the ease with which it recreated two major road blocks in the Gaza Strip, turning it into three strips.
Israel did not, as called for in the peace plan, freeze settlement growth or dismantle the 60 settlement outposts it had built in the West Bank since March 2001. Many of the prisoners it freed were due to be released shortly, and, as Israeli officials noted, they could always be re-arrested.
People here are used to the grand imagery of summit meetings and the inspiring goals of peace plans, and they are also used to disappointment. Because the obligations of the peace plan were pursued with mincing steps, each side feared it was being lured into repeating past mistakes.
Israelis — not just the leaders, but the citizens — feared that they were again letting the Palestinians get away with keeping Hamas in their arsenal, when the Palestinians were supposed to be forswearing violence. Palestinians feared that they were again letting the Israelis get away with expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, when the Israelis were supposed to be preparing to give up territory.
In December 2001, Israel declared Mr. Arafat "irrelevant." Six months later, the Bush administration cut all ties to him. He remained in his Ramallah compound, seemingly sidelined, as Mr. Bush embraced Mr. Abbas as the new Palestinian leader.
But as the peace plan unraveled this week, Mr. Powell said, "I call on Chairman Arafat to work with Prime Minister Abbas." Both sides saw that statement as an acknowledgment of the reality of Mr. Arafat's influence, though they inferred very different meanings from it.
Israeli officials interpreted Mr. Powell's statement as a threat to Mr. Arafat, saying that he was warning him that the Bush administration would eventually permit Israel to deport him if he did not cooperate fully with Mr. Abbas. "This is the warning before the ultimatum," a senior Israeli official said.
Palestinian officials interpreted Mr. Powell's statement as a recognition that Mr. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, was a subordinate to Mr. Arafat, not a competing center of power. "They convinced themselves in a very funny way, like children, that now we have a new Palestinian leadership," Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian minister of labor, said of the Americans and Israelis. "It's not a new leadership. Abu Mazen is No. 2, and he has been No. 2 as long as I can remember."
Mr. Abbas — who also served as a lead negotiator for the Oslo peace process — shares the same stated goals as Mr. Arafat, including a Palestinian state in the entire West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in Jerusalem. But Mr. Abbas, unlike Mr. Arafat, opposes the armed Palestinian uprising.
Israel accuses Mr. Arafat of preventing Mr. Abbas from confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, saying that Mr. Arafat's true goal is Israel's destruction.
Mr. Khatib, who was in meetings this week as the Palestinian leadership debated what to do, said that Mr. Arafat was not interested in such a confrontation now because, like most Palestinians, he believes the Palestinians will gain nothing in return.
"The question is, what is it for?" Mr. Khatib said. "Is Sharon really willing to move forward in ending the occupation? No one is really convinced that there is a chance, that there is a partner on the other side that is worth paying any price for."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company