Chicago Tribune Editorial

The Mideast's tangled politics

Published May 27, 2002

      Twenty months into the violent uprising known as the intifada, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention many Americans, know the basic tradeoffs of the deal that will be required to reach a Mideast peace. It's essentially the outline proposed at the Camp David summit in July 2000--with final details to be resolved on borders, Jewish settlers, Palestinian refugees and the parameters of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

      But bloodshed, political pressure and their longstanding animosity toward each other impede Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from making the difficult concessions needed to embrace that deal. Public sentiment in the U.S. and abroad keeps President Bush from taking a tougher line with both men to force them to make compromises.

      There are some certainties in all this, even if the principal players don't want to publicly acknowledge them.

      Jewish settlers will have to be moved out of most occupied Arab lands in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Sharon is loath to do that.

      Palestinian refugees will have to be told most of them will never return to their homes in Israel, and Arafat can't bring himself to do that.

      As much as there are some certainties in what must be contained in a peace agreement, how to get there has probably never been more uncertain. In part, that's because the political web in the Mideast grows only more tangled.

      For Sharon, the political calculus is exhausting. His Likud-led coalition government teetered on extinction last week with only 60 of the 120 members in the Knesset. This came after Sharon ousted two Orthodox Jewish parties from the government when they refused to support his emergency economic plan. That raised the profile of the Labor Party, which is pushing harder for compromise with the Palestinians than Sharon cares to go.

      From his own party, Sharon faces a challenge from the right after a vote by the Likud Central Committee earlier this month, initiated by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. In Israel, it is said, there is no foreign policy. It's all domestic policy.

      Polls show two-thirds of Israelis support Sharon's launching of the recent Operation Defensive Shield to crack down on the infrastructure of Palestinian terror. At the same time, an almost equal share of the public supports making deep concessions for peace. This may seem contradictory. It isn't. It's a reflection of how terrorized the population has become. They will support a real peace deal if Arafat can prove himself a genuine partner, but they have yet to see evidence he is willing or able to punish and stop Arab terrorists bent on killing Israeli civilians.

      As for Arafat, his popularity rose when his Ramallah compound was under siege. But many Palestinians grew disenchanted when he struck a deal to free himself in exchange for allowing Palestinians wanted by Israel to be sent to jail or exile. Palestinians increasingly see him as having no endgame. That renders meaningless the suffering they have endured.

      Arafat will survive, but there is growing pressure for new leadership, and he has begun to talk of making democratic reforms and holding elections. So far it is talk, from an autocrat who has refused to groom a successor, lest his power be diminished.

      Bush faces a political tangle as well. A coalition of Christian conservatives and American Jews, who share biblical beliefs supporting Jewish claims to a Greater Israel, form a core U.S. constituency pressuring Bush not to lean too hard on Sharon. Members of Congress agree. Arafat, deservedly, is reviled for using terrorism as diplomacy after he failed to come back with a realistic counteroffer to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's overtures at Camp David.

      That domestic equation, however, has somewhat reduced Bush's leverage. Thus, Bush acquiesced when Sharon ignored his demand that Israel cut short its military incursions into Palestinian territories over the last two months. He has been unwilling to wield his ultimate negotiating tool: the $3 billion a year in economic and military aid the U.S. provides to Israel.

      On the other side, Bush needs the support of Arab governments to successfully wage his global war on terrorism. Yet those governments are outraged at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. To continue cooperation from moderate Arab states, Bush has tread a careful line on Arafat--denouncing the Palestinian leader for terrorism but supporting him as the only viable Palestinian negotiator for peace.

      The world, it seems, still has a long, tortured path toward a political solution in the Mideast. The alternative, though, is a steadily growing stack of bodies on both sides and the chance of it all escalating into regional war. In the end, they would return to the same path, the same choices.

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