Diplomats from Washington to Riyadh had hoped resolving the siege of Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah would mark an end to the latest cycle of violence and a clear victory for diplomacy. However, when new fighting and a fire broke out in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity within hours of Israel's military pullout from Ramallah earlier this week, the fragile nature of the diplomatic effort which brought about Arafat's release from confinement in his own headquarters was exposed for all to see.
These events come after hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians died in months of fighting and a series of suicide bombings. It is no surprise there are far fewer optimists hovering around the Middle East Peace Process these days. Still, there is some hope for optimism.
President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, working with diplomats from the UN, Europe and the Arab world, have announced an international conference intended to bring peace to the Middle East. This is a high-risk political strategy, and while there's ample reason to be skeptical of a successful outcome there is some reason for optimism.
Until its recent plunge into a full-time effort of Middle East peacemaking, the Bush administration had been content to stand back and keep this seemingly intractable problem at arm's length. Forced to take a more active diplomatic role by ongoing violence and pressure from other governments, especially Europeans and moderate Arab leaders in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, President George W. Bush and his national security team finally bit the bullet. They are no longer walking gingerly along the path but have taken the plunge into peacemaking, Middle East style.
Last weekend President Bush met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at his Crawford, Texas ranch and discussed the recently proposed Saudi peace plan for the region. The two leaders talked not about the desirability to act more aggressively but about the necessity to do so. The President spends this weekend at Camp David, preparing for meetings at the White House next Tuesday with Prime Minister Sharon and on the following day with Jordan's King Abdullah.
Diplomats in many world capitals will be busy this weekend working on proposals to discuss at these meetings and at the upcoming peace conference.
In Washington the emphasis will be on re-invigorating the bridging proposals Special Envoy Anthony Zinni almost had put into effect before the late April so-called "Passover" suicide bombing. Designed to bring about a real cease-fire agreement, they would urge Arafat crack down on Palestinian terrorism and bring security to Israelis. Efforts will also be advanced to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people, especially in Jenin and other West Bank cities which have sustained considerable damage by recent Israeli military operations. And political talks would be started soon to give Palestinians a realistic idea of what peace with Israel would mean for them.
"This is a time for prompt action," says Powell, "to take advantage of this new window of opportunity that has been presented to us. And we intend to do just that."
Informed officials expect Sharon to repeat his view that Arafat is not a trustworthy partner for peace. He'll emphasize the increasingly popular Israeli desire to find ways to separate Israelis and Palestinians and the Israeli leader will likely talk about stages of progress, not an all-encompassing approach that leads quickly to a comprehensive peace. "How to put all this together," said one knowledgeable official, "is still a work in progress."
By Charles M. Wolfson