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Mideast Prism Changed

Author: Robert Malley, International Crisis Group
September 20, 2001
Los Angeles Times


As families continue to bury their dead, the tragic events of Sept. 11 may inadvertently have brought the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back to life. Staring back at 12 months of relentless and escalating violence, hundreds of victims and an almost incalculable lack of trust, the two sides announced a cease-fire. The question is whether this is for real— and if not, how to make it so.

There are reasons to be skeptical that this initiative will hold. For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a genuine cease-fire threatens to put in motion an Israeli-Palestinian political process, thereby exposing the various fault lines of his domestic coalition, on settlement construction, land withdrawals and the content of a peace agreement. For Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a genuine cease-fire requires cracking down on influential Palestinian groups, thereby exposing his internal contradictions and generating the risk of internecine violence. Caught in their deadly embrace, Israelis and Palestinians seemed content to simply keep on fighting.

But something has changed as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is not the Israeli-Palestinian chessboard they are playing on any more. They have become ancillary pieces in a far larger and more important game. What matters now is not so much what they desire but what they cannot afford, which is being on the wrong side of the new battle lines against terrorism drawn by Washington.

Palestinians may well believe that any comparison between their struggle and the Sept. 11 attacks is invidious. They may argue that any such linkage obfuscates Israel's share of responsibility in the ongoing confrontation. They may state all that, but few will listen and fewer still will care. Acts once viewed solely through an Arab-Israeli prism henceforth will be interpreted through a lens whose only operative distinction will be between those believed to promote terrorism and those seen as combating it. By promptly announcing a cease-fire, Arafat showed that he understood that much.

For their part, many Israelis may hold the view that what Americans suffered was a magnified version of what they have experienced and that their battle against the Palestinians is a subplot in the United States' battle against Osama bin Laden. But there too, the overall U.S. calculus is proving different and overwhelming. To be effective in its fight against terrorism, the U.S.-led coalition must include Arab and Muslim states. That requires that Israelis and Palestinians make progress toward resolving their conflict. Sharon's announcement that Israel would cease its operations against the Palestinians shows that he, too, has gotten the message.

For the United States, the immediate task is to continue to stress that everything must be subordinated to the fight against terrorism. Arafat should be kept in line by making clear that to instigate violence would be to place himself on the wrong side of the new equation; Sharon should be kept in check by making clear that to put impediments on the path toward a political process would be to undermine the prospects of the U.S.-led international coalition.

In the long run, of course, the challenge will be far more complex. It is to change the dynamics on the ground so that Israelis and Palestinians no longer act to avert U.S. wrath, but rather to seize an opportunity for peace, not despite their true intent but because of it. This will require that the U.S. intervene forcefully and that it put Arab-Israeli diplomacy back at the top of its agenda. After Sept. 11, that clearly is in our national interest.

The perpetrators of last week's terrorist act were neither reacting to nor addressing the plight of the Palestinian people. Preparations for the attack were underway for more than a year, at a time when the peace process still was healthy, before the failure of the Camp David summit and before the current intifada. Still, Middle Eastern terrorism is the perverted outgrowth of a culture of anger that is fed, at least in part, by frustration at the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Resolving this issue in a way that is fair to both sides would not be a reward to terrorism. It would be an answer to it.

Robert Malley is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs.

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