With Secretary of State Colin Powell's Mideast mission widely seen as a failure, the focus of international diplomacy now shifts to a possible regional conference using the Saudi peace initiative as a basis for talks.
Although Powell said at a press conference Wednesday in Jerusalem that no date for such a conference has been set, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said it could be held in the United States as early as June. Although Sharon at first ruled out participation by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, he said in an interview on Israel television: "It's not important to me which of them will be there."
Sharon has been pushing for such a conference for the last several days and his spokesman, Raanan Gissin, was quoted as saying
that "the Americans think this is very important."
Powell said he had received "expressions of interest" from Sharon, Arafat and other leaders. The purpose of such a conference, he said, would be to "restore hope, reaffirm the urgency of a comprehensive settlement and resume direct negotiations in order to achieve a comprehensive settlement."
Talk of the conference came as Israel prepared to withdraw its troops from all but two towns in the West Bank after completing its mission to destroy the Palestinian "terrorist infrastructure." In the process, the town of Jenin, described as a hotbed of terrorist activity, was heavily damaged. Israel continues to deny Palestinian claims that a "massacre" occurred there.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said plans for a regional peace conference could be scuttled if there is a return to suicide bombings and other Palestinian violence once Israeli troops withdraw from Palestinian areas. It would only take place, he said, "if there is an extended period without violence."
He attributed Powell's failure to achieve a cease-fire to the fact that he was "sent prematurely, without proper preparation and with no strategy. As a result, he's going home with nothing and the U.S. has lost its primary ability to step in and say this has gone too far."
But a Sharon adviser Dore Gold, said Powell appeared to have succeeded in defusing tensions along Israel's northern border with Lebanon. There, Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists had been firing rockets into Israel on an almost daily basis. Gold said that after Powell met with Lebanese and Syrian leaders to express concern that the conflict could widen into a regional war, the shelling stopped. As of Wednesday, Israel's northern border had been quiet for five days.
"He intervened in the nick of time," said Gold.
When Bush dispatched Powell for his 10-day mission to the region, he explained that he was compelled to do so in an effort to stop the daily suicide bombings and Palestinian attacks on Israelis. At the same time, he said he still saw Arafat as Israel's peace partner, even though Israel had labeled Arafat the Middle East's chief terrorist.
Public opinion polls show Americans supportive of Bush's attempt to mediate a peaceful settlement but evenly split on whether the administration has a well thought out policy on the Middle East. At a pro-Israel rally in Washington Monday, there was implicit criticism of Bush for declaring war on terrorism while at the same time willing to work with Arafat.
Bush, however, did not address that issue Wednesday during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute. But he did call upon Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which he said had helped in the wider war on terrorism, to "help confront terrorism in the Middle East."
"All parties have a responsibility to stop funding and inciting terrorism," he continued. "All parties have a responsibility to stop saying a murderer is a martyr. He or she is just a murderer."
Bush added that the Palestinian Authority "must act, must act" to translate its words of condemnation into action.
Even as Israel prepared to move out of most West Bank Palestinian towns, it arrested Marwan Barghouti, 42, the head of Arafat's Tanzim organization who was considered the commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. That group is blamed for a large number of terrorist attacks on Israelis, including last Friday's suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market that killed six Israelis.
Israel plans to try Barghouti but former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said that would be a mistake.
"This is the case of a very sad story of a prominent Palestinian politician who was elected to the legislative council and was a supporter of peace and who became a supporter of violence to achieve the same target," he told The Jewish Week by phone from Israel. "He is very well known. He appears on television and his detention will be taken as a focal point by the media all over the world. There will be demands in the Palestinian camp to release him and it will become a very big irritation in the next few days, especially when there are others who are inciting terrorism" and have not been arrested.
"Before he becomes our biggest headache, it would be wise to question him and then free him so that he does not become a martyr," Beilin said. "And the sooner the better."
But Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, dismissed that suggestion, saying Beilin has a "profound lack of understanding of our situation and the motivation of our enemies. Yossi Beilin even at this moment still believes, contrary to the facts, that Yasir Arafat is a potential peace partner."
He said that although Barghouti is a political leader, he is also the head of the Tanzim, "one of the most vicious and violent terrorist organizations responsible for the murder of countless Israelis and the wounding of many more. In spite of that, Israel is going to proceed along the lines of the rule of law and put him on trial."
Regarding the regional peace conference, Professor Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University said Sharon's decision to drop his insistence that Arafat be excluded from the conference "opens some crack of hope because the Palestinians would never go or do anything" without Arafat's approval.
The Saudi peace initiative, which would provide Israel with normal Arab relations in exchange for its return to the 1967 borders, the recognition of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as a its capital, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, is a "good foundation for a new start," said Kedar. "The real questions will arise very soon: the future of Israeli settlements in the territories, the future of Jerusalem, and the right of return to Israel proper" of 3.9 million Palestinian refugees.
ìMaybe the first two could be solved through imaginative thinking, but the third one is the most complicated and insoluble because Israel does not want to see even one refugee" return to Israel proper, he said. "But the national ethos of the Palestinian is built upon the right of return. ... Here in the Middle East, it is unheard of that refugees be absorbed where they are. Xenophobia is the name of the game, even if a foreigner is from another village one kilometer away."
Shoval noted that 22 Arab nations embraced the Saudi initiative at a recent Arab summit meeting. He said Israel does not agree with the Saudi initiative as written but would use the conference as an opportunity to bring other ideas to the table.
"Israel has ideas and proposals which I think are not too different from what the Bush administration would like to see," Shoval said. "They fit in well with the Mitchell proposal, which is an incremental stage procedure. We are not saying, contrary to some Arab voices, that this is a take-it-or-leave-it situation and putting forth pre-conditions. Everything is negotiable. The only pre-condition is what [National Security Adviser Condolezza] Rice said, that violence and terrorism must stop immediately and permanently. Israel will not negotiate under fire."
He said that attending the conference would be Israel, the U.S., Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Palestinians.
Sharon said another possibility is that the Arab League would send a representative and that the European Union and Russia would also be invited.
Housing Minister Natan Sharanksy, in a brief interview at Monday's pro-Israel rally in Washington, said Israel would like to see the regional conference.
"We feel Oslo is dead," he said, referring to the Oslo accords of 1993. "So we're now going back to the Madrid process."
He was referring to the Madrid conference in 1991 in which for the first time Arab nations sat down with Israel to discuss peace.
But Jordan's prime minister, Ali Abul-Ragheb, said in an Arab newspaper Wednesday that if Powell's mission failed, it would have "grave consequences on the region as a whole, on the peace process and will cause chaos, and the interests of the U.S. and the West will be affected."
In his press conference Wednesday, Powell stressed that for the Palestinians and Israelis to have peace, "both sides will have to shift from long-held positions." But he stressed that "we will never get to negotiations and we will never be able to move forward until we bring the violence down."
He said the issue of a cease-fire "is not a relevant term at the moment" because there were still Israeli forces in several West Bank Palestinian-controlled towns. But he said he had been given a precise timetable by Sharon of when the troops would be withdrawn over the next few days.
Sharon earlier told CNN: "Altogether, we are on our way out." He said troops would be withdrawn from Jenin in less than a week and from Nablus "in not more than a week."
But he said that in Bethlehem, where about 200 armed Palestinians remain in the Church of the Nativity, and in Ramallah, where Arafat has been confined to his compound for two weeks, troops would remain.
"We will leave Bethlehem only after they are either arrested and tried in Israel or deported," he said of those in the church.
Powell said that standoff in Ramallah was compounded by Israel's desire to arrest the killers of Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevi, who are holed up in the Ramallah compound with Arafat.
Powell said it was now up to both sides to make some strategic choices about their future if they wish to live together in peace.
ìThe question is whether the time has come for a strong, vibrant State of Israel to look beyond the destructive impact of settlement and occupation, both of which must end," he said.
And to the Palestinians, Powell said the ìquestion is whether violence and terrorism can be renounced forever and whether your sights can be set squarely on peace through negotiations. Terrorists and purveyors of violence must not hold the Palestinian dream of independence hostage and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state."
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