Middle East peace plan spinning toward failure AFTERMATH OF THE GAZA BOMBING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- It seemed an insignificant act in the wake of tragedy: Israel ordered thousands of Palestinians yesterday to stay off two main roads in the Gaza Strip that were used in bomb attacks Sunday.

But the order showed how the peace plan is slipping further from its goal. Blockading the Gaza Strip's main roads will not stop attacks by Palestinian fanatics. But it is certain to further embitter thousands of Palestinians whose support is needed for the peace plan to work.

An eighth victim of Sunday's suicide bombings died yesterday: Aliza Flatow, 20, a New Jersey college student who was riding on the bus hit by the first of two bomb explosions Sunday.

In Israel and the United States, officials from President Clinton to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin clamored for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to "do more" about the attacks. Israeli ministers began backing away from the latest deadline for an agreement on the withdrawal from the West Bank.

"We'll see," said Mr. Rabin, when asked about the July 1 deadline.

Mr. Arafat, anxious to show that he is doing something about the continued attacks by Islamic militants, ordered arrests of more than 150 alleged opponents.

Both sides say they will keep negotiating. But real advancement in the peace plan has halted. The process that was supposed to provide a solution to the conflict has become hostage to one standard: whether attacks on Israelis will stop.

It is a standard that Israel could not meet even with its overwhelming army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Mr. Arafat will be unable to despite his growing authoritarian controls over a resentful populace.

"There is difficulty in stopping any kind of suicide attack," acknowledged Amnon Shahak, the Israeli army deputy chief of staff.

"We should remember what happened in Lebanon," agreed Menachem Klein, an analyst at the Truman Institute of Tel Aviv University. "Neither Israel nor America nor the French -- nobody -- could avoid those kinds of attacks."

Set up for failure

In effect, the peace plan has been set up for failure. Despite their vows to the contrary, the parties to the arrangement -- Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States -- have relinquished control over the fate of their plan to extremist Muslim fanatics.

After each such attack, Israel and the Palestinians have vowed that "the peace process will go on," and they continue talking. But apart from a turnover of ministries already actually run by Palestinians, there has been no real progress since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in May.

Soon after signing the Oslo Agreement in Washington in September 1993, Mr. Rabin declared the deadlines invalid. None has been met. Ten months ago, Israel was supposed to have turned over Arab areas of the West Bank after Palestinian elections. Neither a turnover nor an election appears imminent.

Even ambitions have dimmed. At best, the two sides will manage a limited withdrawal of Israeli troops from some Palestinian cities in the West Bank, analysts say. The grander agenda of the peace accords for solving the real disputes -- such as sovereignty over Jerusalem and Jewish settlements -- now is a remote dream.

All the parties to the accord havemade decisions that are helping defeat the plan.

Israel, after gladly withdrawing from most of the troublesome Gaza Strip, reneged on promises to give Palestinians further control of their own lives and lands.

Instead, it has tightened the noose around Palestinians -- cutting them off from their jobs, stopping travel, putting obstacles in the way of the meager produce trade that kept Gazans from sliding further into poverty.

Contradicted pledges

Israeli leaders contradicted their own pledges.

Mr. Rabin declared a "freeze" in Jewish settlements, but his government continues to approve new houses, by the thousands, in existing settlements. He promised to negotiate the status of Jerusalem, but now declares the topic "off limits." He pledged to release 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, but 5,000 remain behind bars.

Mr. Arafat, for his part, has disillusioned his own people. He has proven inept at running a government. Economic conditions have plummeted. Cronyism is rampant. Democracy is a fading dream.

Mr. Arafat claimed that his organization in Tunis, Tunisia, had long prepared for statehood, but few of his ministries even function today.

The Palestinians themselves -- perhaps the most educated of Arab peoples, most independent, most exposed to Western-style government -- have failed to take the initiative over the autonomy they do have. They mostly complain about Israel and the West.

The United States and its international partners, wary of Mr. Arafat's untethered management style, have not met their promises to send in the millions of dollars that could have enabled the Palestinians to float above their problems.

Siding with Israel

The United States has sided openly with Israel in almost all disputes. Martin Indyk, presenting his papers as the new U.S. ambassador to Israel yesterday, used his first official comments to assuage Israel and chastise Mr. Arafat.

"We share your greatest tragedies," Mr. Indyk said. "The Palestinians must take stronger measures." Mr. Clinton has made similar comments.

With such comments, the United States has given up much of its leverage on Israel and has alienated the Palestinians. Jewish settlements that were resisted by the Bush administration go unchallenged by the Clinton administration. The missed deadlines and closures by Israel rarely bring U.S. criticism.

Creating authoritarianism

Conversely, the U.S. and Israeli pressure on Mr. Arafat is helping create an authoritarian rule that is resented by many Palestinians and much unlike the regime the United States might have been expected to encourage.

In the name of cracking down on terrorists, Mr. Arafat has borrowed tactics from Arab dictatorships. His police have opened fire on opponents at a mosque. They have made wholesale political arrests and tortured suspects in prison. They have thrown journalists in jail, impounded newspapers, silenced human rights critics and generally trampled fledgling hopes of democracy.

Mr. Indyk expressed no qualms about these tactics. He applauded the first conviction yesterday by a special military "security court" set up by Mr. Arafat, in which an alleged Islamic opponent was given a 15-year prison term after a hasty overnight trial.

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