NEWS

Are the Middle East peace talks doomed to fail?

European Union foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today in an effort to pick up the pieces of an ailing peace process in the Middle East, and bring the two sides to the negotiating table. Israel will be represented by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine by its top negotiator Nabil Shaath. The meeting is now of grave urgency after the already frail peace process received another major blow this past week when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Chairman Yasser Arafat of supporting terrorism and ordered the Israeli armed forces to carry out attacks against offices of the Palestinian Authority, airports, police stations and military compounds. Israeli government officials said the military attacks were to punish Arafat and urge him to take prompt action against the leaders and lieutenants of the Islamic Jihad and militant Hamas groups. Hamas was the group that claimed responsibility for the three suicide attacks over the past weekend in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 Israelis and injured hundreds more. In one of the latest Israeli military strikes early Saturday, two Israeli helicopter gunships fired eight missiles at the headquarters of Palestinian military intelligence in Gaza, a police station and a building housing Force 17 – Arafat’s elite guard unit. But the Palestinians, through Arafat, who has been urged by Sharon to arrest the members of the two extremist groups, made clear that the attacks are hampering their efforts because the Israeli military targets the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. He doesn’t want me to succeed, remarked a frustrated Arafat in a recent television interview, referring to Sharon and the recent escalation of military strikes by Israel. In spite of the unfavorable conditions created by these attacks, which in many cases have resulted in clashes between protesters and Palestinian police forces, some 180 militants of the two groups have been arrested, the Palestinian Authority said. According to Palestinian sources in Athens, Israeli forces have destroyed a quarter of the police stations in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the same ones that are to hold any suspected members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declared that in one recent attack, Israeli warplanes targeted a police station where suspected members had been transferred and were in custody. Moreover, on Friday, Arafat ordered his forces to place the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin under house arrest. Yet Israel insists that it’s not enough. Diminishing hopes Hopes for peace in the Middle East are diminishing as each day passes, and the peace process appears to be on life support with both sides losing faith that any agreement is obtainable. A poll published Friday in Israel showed that the attitudes of the Israelis toward the Palestinians have hardened after the recent escalation of violence. According to the survey, 71 percent of Israelis questioned now favor massive military action against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, and 56 percent favor expelling Arafat from the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, while more than half the people approved of stepping up diplomatic efforts before the suicide bombing attacks, only 42 percent are in favor of it now. The sentiments were similar on the other side. According to Palestinian sources, just 11 percent of Palestinians now favor a peace process with Israel, dramatically lower than the 70 percent back in 1996. The same sources note that in reality the peace process died with the assassination of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist. They claim than none of the later Israeli leaders had any honest desire for peace, saying that both Benjamin Netanayahu and Ehud Barak played along for the domestic audience and for votes. Rebuffing what they described as Israeli propaganda, the same Palestinian sources declared that contrary to the Israeli version of what they say was offered to Arafat at the peace talks in Camp David, nothing was presented to them on paper – at least as regards the return of the occupied areas. Another issue out of a series on which the two sides present different accounts is on the return of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli government declares that at Camp David they offered the Palestinians the return of 100,000 Palestinian refugees. But the Palestinian sources stress that the number was much lower, about 40,000, and only after the intervention of the USA did it rise to 100,000. Moreover, in driving their point home, they stress that the Israelis placed several restrictions to temper the deal, including stating they would only accept a maximum of 2,000 refugees per year and only after grueling background checks. Furthermore, they underline that the reason Arafat walked out of the Camp David talks was because Barak was proposing changes to the United Nations Security Council resolution which formed the basis of a lasting solution to the problem in the Middle East. The sources made clear that, in their view, Barak returned to the negotiations in Tampa only for domestic reasons, playing to the audience back home a month prior to national elections, and not with any honest desire of reaching a peace accord. Military might But the major shift in Israel’s foreign policy came during Sharon’s administration, the sources claim, which made a U-turn by ending the status quo and increasing the pressure on Palestinian-controlled territories by establishing more road blocks and acting in defiance of Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Sharon defended that policy by noting the need for enhanced security for the state of Israel – the top theme of his election campaign. This escalation of pressure on the Palestinians, however, resulted in more Israeli casualties than during any of the previous administrations, the Palestinian sources emphasize. In fact – in last Friday’s poll in Israel taken before the suicide attacks over the weekend in Jerusalem and Haifa – 57 percent of those surveyed approved of Sharon’s security record, while 38 percent were unhappy with it. The Palestinian sources stress that Sharon has no desire for a peace process, and claim that more than any previous Israeli leader, he is inclined toward war. This appears to ring true now more than ever, as Sharon, in the name of security, stands ready to invade and retake the remaining Palestinian territories. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on Friday revealed that in a telephone conversation he had with Sharon, the Israeli prime minister told him that Israel wanted to be rid of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. During my telephone conversation the other day with Prime Minister Sharon, it became very clear that Israel was inclined toward war, the Reuters news agency quoted Ecevit as saying to reporters in Ankara. In fact, Mr Sharon openly expressed the desire to be rid of Mr Arafat. And Sharon appears to have the backing of his people in his efforts to topple Arafat. In the same poll, 51 percent said that they would support an Israeli drive to bring down Arafat’s regime – meaning to topple the government of another state – while another 39 percent are in favor of an all-out war. The Palestinians appear ready for that eventuality. According to the Palestinian sources in Athens, the Palestinian people are fully aware of how powerful Israel’s war machine is, and they report that they stand ready to back Arafat and the Palestinian Authority under any circumstances. But, after the accusations from each side, the fighting and all the deaths, the core facts remain the same and those are the UN Security Council resolutions.