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Middle East: A Breakthrough Or Merely A First Step?

Some American news reports are referring to the U.S.-backed compromise to end the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a "breakthrough." But at least one analyst says the deal is merely a step in a difficult road to peace.

Washington, 30 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The American-backed compromise to restore Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's freedom of movement could be an important first step in resolving other Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, and some say it might lead to an overall cease-fire.

But at least one analyst says the deal reached Sunday cannot be considered a breakthrough, and that much depends on whether Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon follow up on the deal in good faith.

Under the terms of the compromise, Israel would withdraw its tanks from the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, situated in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, ending the Arafat siege.

In return, six Palestinians suspected of assassinating an Israeli cabinet minister last October would be escorted from the Arafat compound by U.S. and British monitors to a Palestinian jail, where the monitors would oversee their confinement pending a trial in Israel.

Some reports, from Washington, say this deal was conceived by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed it to Sharon during the American's Middle East mission earlier this month. The reports said Sharon was not prepared to consider it at that time.

Whatever its origin, both Sharon and Arafat accepted the compromise during the weekend, thanks to the persuasive powers of Blair, Powell, and U.S. President George W. Bush himself.

Other reports from Jerusalem say Israel would not agree to the deal unless Washington supported Israel's stand in trying to shape a United Nations fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp to determine whether Israeli troops massacred Palestinians there, as Palestinian officials contend. Israel says any UN mission to Jenin would be biased against Israel unless Israel has influence over its makeup.

Meanwhile, a standoff between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops continues at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And on 29 April, just hours after Israel agreed to the U.S.-backed deal to release Arafat, Israeli forces occupied the West Bank city of Hebron. Israel said the troops arrested 17 Palestinians in a further effort to dismantle what it called the infrastructure of terrorism in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the incursion into Hebron shows that Israel is not interested in pursuing peace, despite agreeing to the compromise on Arafat.

"We believe that the Israeli government, by taking this step of reoccupying Hebron, is in fact declaring that its intention is to continue the war against the Palestinian people."

But the Israeli military insisted its forces do not intend to stay long in Hebron, and that the incursion is aimed solely at eliminating terrorists.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, "Israel is not invading any area, but when some terrorists are coming from a certain place our soldiers are going to the place looking for the nest of terror and murder and trying to get hold of the people who are responsible for the killing."

Bush announced the agreement on freeing Arafat on Sunday at his Texas ranch. As he has before, Bush called on all parties -- Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring Arab states -- to do their best to reach a peace accord.

The question remains whether the compromise could lead to resolutions of the Bethlehem and Jenin problems. However, Powell said Monday that he believes the siege at the Church of the Nativity could end soon.

"I think there is a solution. I don't know how close at hand it is. I've been hoping for a breakthrough over the last several days. But all the elements are in place. There's still some difficult discussions to take place, but I think it will [be resolved] in the near future," Powell said.

Powell made the comment to reporters at the State Department in Washington after a meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. For his part, Fischer offered Powell his congratulations for the deal to end the Arafat siege, calling it a "breakthrough."

But a quick resolution of the standoff at the Church of the Nativity is not assured, according to Joseph Cirincione, an international-affairs analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent policy center in Washington. Cirincione told RFE/RL that persuading Sharon to restore Arafat's freedom of movement is the only logical first step.

"This is the sine qua non. I mean, Arafat has got to be free to move around if there's any hope of getting the Palestinian Authority to rein in the terrorist attacks and to show a willingness to talk with Israel," Cirincione said.

But Cirincione said long-standing mistrust will make it difficult for either side to trust the other enough to lead to quick resolutions in Bethlehem and Jenin. In other words, Cirincione said, he doesn't believe the U.S.-led compromise is a breakthrough.

In fact, Cirincione said the deal may be nothing more than a frantic effort by Bush to make up for the long period in which his administration refused to become deeply involved in the Middle East peace process.

"Bush is trying to rescue the situation that's spiraled out of control faster than he ever thought it would. And [the heightened tension in the Middle East] really is a sign that he's paying the price for a year -- 18 months -- of inattention."

According to Cirincione, Bush is torn by several conflicting forces: his own desire to stabilize the Middle East, the desire of some in his Republican Party to let the Israelis deal with the Palestinians as they see fit, pressure from Arab states to rein in Sharon, and Sharon's resentment that Bush would intercede at all.

As a result, Cirincione said, the compromise that Bush persuaded Sharon to accept may be merely a sign that Bush is struggling to strengthen American's own weak position. And he said Bush has nobody to blame for this but himself.