EVEN for a nation used to violence, the two catastrophes over the 'black weekend' came as a shock. On September 4, three Hamas suicide bombers, disguised as a girl and ultra orthodox Jews, blew themselves up in a span of a few seconds near three coffee shops in a Jerusalem shopping mall during rush hour. Five civilians were killed, more than 170 were injured. Just a day later, 11 Israeli elite marine commandos were killed in an abortive raid on southern Lebanon.
Israel was in a bind. It could do two things: either declare 'total war' on Yasser Arafat's Palestinians—as Avigdor Kahalani, minister for internal security, hinted in an interview with Israeli TV—or hold the "rope edge" that American diplomacy offered during US secretary of state Madeleine Alb-right's maiden visit to the region.
Albright landed in Tel Aviv on September 10 where angry protesters waved banners asking her to either "save the US-mediated Oslo accord or bury it". Later, at a press conference with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Albright said "the Palestinian Authority must take unilateral steps and actions to root out terrorist infrastructure." This was seen as tilting towards Israel. At another press conference, this time with Arafat at Ramallah in the West Bank a day later, she said the Palestinian Authority's fight against terrorism must be "comprehensive, relentless and sustained" and that it can't be resorted to only when it is convenient. She did slam the recent killings in Jerusalem but said Israel also had a responsibility to create a conducive environment for the peace process.
The Jerusalem flareup apart, Israelis are hotly debating the country's involvement in Lebanon. After Hezbollah guerrillas killed 11 crack Israeli soldiers on a "routine" mission to Lebanon, many are demanding unilateral withdrawal from "the cursed land" of Lebanon. The lines of dispute do not pass between parties, but inside them, and strange alliances are being forged between the central activists of Likud minister Michael Eitan and Labour opposition leader Yossi Beilin.
Both called for an early withdrawal from Lebanon, on the ground that it is better to defend the northern border from the border line itself. Both were reprimanded by their party leaders, though Labour Party boss Ehud Barak had already declared that a "phased withdrawal" could be considered. Likud leader and prime minister Netanyahu asked Eitan to stop spouting Lebanon statements, but at the same time he can hardly supply his voters the "peace with security" slogan he offered during the election campaign a year-and-a-half ago.
In the West Bank, the Palestinians are also paying a heavy price for the terrorist attacks, as Israel reimposed the curbs it had lifted only a short while ago. The unemployment rate among Palestinians has reached as high as 40 per cent and there is not even a whiff of a drastic change.
The situation of Palestinian Authority leader Arafat is no better: the community of donor nations has stopped a generous economic programme it promised after the Oslo agreements were signed four years ago, following revelations of large-scale embezzlement. The "hole" in the Palestinian Authority budget is now around $150 million—about one-third of the budget—and it has been forced to borrow from private banks to pay salaries in the last two months. At his press conference with Albright, Arafat repeatedly demanded that Israel must release Palestinian money.
The spurt in terrorism has hit the Palestinians politically as well, because it validates the Israeli demand that "terrorism" be contained. In Netanyahu's words: "There will be no peace process without security". He has made it clear that if the Palestinian Authority does not crack down on Hamas, Israel would not hand over any additional territories as envisaged under the Oslo agreements. In contrast, the Palestinian Authority claims there will be security "only after peace is established". Saib Erekat, Arafat's key negotiator, went a step further by declaring that Netanyahu is harping on "security before peace" to escape Israel's commitments.
Albright is caught between Israel's sharp-focus on "dealing with terrorism" and the Palestinian counter that Israel should instead concentrate on the "peace process" and withdraw its troops from the West Bank. Albright's peace-making mission includes talks in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, besides Damascus. The resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks becomes urgent in the backdrop of the internal Israeli dispute over Lebanon.
The possibility of Syria rejoining the peace negotiations with Israel is not good news for the PLO and Egypt. Not because they are against peace between Israel and Syria, but because they are aware that President Assad has showed little interest in coordinating with his Arab colleagues about his possible resumption of talks with Israel. In September, four years ago, the Oslo agreements were signed, excluding the Syrians. Now Assad may consider paying back the PLO and Egypt in the same coin, by instituting direct talks with Israel. Israeli foreign minister David Levy claimed that there has been an exchange of secret messages between Syria and Israel and that Syria is better prepared to negotiate with Israel. Syria has denied this.
Mubarak and Arafat's suspicions about Assad led them to convene an urgent triple summit along with King Hussein of Jordan earlier in the month. At the summit, Arafat was far from cheerful. He apparently told Mubarak and Hussein that there was a deadlock in the peace process and he wanted to quit as Palestinian Authority leader. It took Mubarak and Hussein a great deal of effort to convince him to stay on in Gaza.
At the same time, they convinced him that in order to deny Assad a leading role in the peace process, Arafat must be more cooperative with Israeli demands. "If you do not show any real fight against Hamas, Assad might be asked to solve the terrorism problem," Mubarak and Hussein told Arafat. That's why upon his arrival in Gaza, he gave orders to arrest some Hamas activists—but far below Israeli demands.
"I am not a collaborator with Israel. I am not ready to accept Israeli demands to arrest my brothers according to Israeli lists," Arafat has said in the past when quizzed about his policy vis-a-vis Hamas. So far, instead of "collaborating" with Israel, Arafat has tried to convince Hamas through a "national dialogue" during which he irked the Israeli leadership by kissing Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. "Please do not operate before Albright is coming," Arafat is said to have pleaded with Hamas leaders. But they didn't heed his advice.
Asked when Arafat would seriously deal with Hamas, a Palestinian offi-cial retorted: "The moment Netanyahu accepts the idea of a Palestinian state." Even after a spate of meetings, Albright was cagey. "We have a long way to go. So far we have managed to get agreement on the fact that terrorists are terrible but we haven't agreed on the methods to tackle terrorism...." A mild description of a peace process gone horribly awry.