The suicide bombing that killed at least 20 Israelis celebrating Passover reflects the dramatic changes that have occurred in Palestinian society since the outbreak of the intifada 18 months ago.
Even though Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Thursday that he was ready to implement an unconditional cease-fire, his ability and willingness to enforce one is almost nonexistent.
The armed intifada has brought about an internal political realignment undermining Arafat and strengthening those who favor continuing attacks against Israel. Never before has Palestinian society been as militarized and radicalized, thanks to a deepening sense of powerlessness and loss.
A new and strong consensus has emerged among Palestinians that the attacks are making the occupation too costly for Israel to endure indefinitely. They believe that they have created a balance of terror with their powerful enemy, using suicide bombings to counter Israel's military strength. In the eyes of the Palestinians, this balance is the key to forcing Israel to agree to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Old rivals, such as Hamas and Arafat's own Fatah faction, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which mistrusted one another and vied for influence, now agree that Washington's cease-fire efforts only undermine Palestinian national aspirations and consolidate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line position.
They insist that armed struggle and terrorism are the most effective means to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories and remove the settlements.
This new realignment of political forces, ushering in tactical coordination between the Islamists and secularists, has put Arafat and his security lieutenants on the defensive and has made it virtually impossible to enforce any cease-fire.
Palestinian officials reportedly are angry and disappointed with U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni's emphasis on security issues and his neglect of politics. As one official involved with the negotiations said, all Zinni's proposal does "is to stop the violence. It doesn't do anything about our interest in addressing the root causes."
Given the lack of a clear political horizon, Arafat is unlikely to take concrete steps to implement the plan drawn up by CIA Director George J. Tenet to enforce a cease-fire. It is not in his interest to do so. In the face of overwhelming military and diplomatic pressure, Arafat may promise, with little prospect of success, to crack down on violence.
In particular, Arafat recognizes the inherent dangers in trying to disarm young, hardened fighters with no tangible political concessions. He is averse to risking popular rage and even civil war at home and being further sidelined by Sharon. The latter's actions--branding Arafat irrelevant, confining him to Ramallah and invading Palestinian territories--have backfired and have compounded Israel's security dilemma.
Far from being beaten into political acquiescence, the Palestinians have improved their combat techniques and become more experienced and daring. No degree of American and Israeli diplomatic pressure will persuade Palestinian activists to stop their attacks. A cease-fire unaccompanied by substantive peace negotiations either will not hold or will be short-lived.
The problem is how to address Israeli security concerns while bringing political questions into the negotiations giving the Palestinians a stake in the future. In this context, Washington's narrowing of the Zinni mandate to deal solely with security issues does not augur well for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
The Arab League's unanimous adoption this week of the Saudi peace initiative might provide a way out, but only if the U.S. gets more actively engaged in pushing the protagonists toward a real settlement. The critical question is: How can the U.S. translate this sweeping initiative into hard currency?
One would hope that the administration sustains its involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli track by focusing not just on security but also on political questions regarding the broad contours of a settlement. This broader focus holds the key to reassuring the desperate Palestinians and providing security for the Israelis, thus putting an end to the bloodshed.