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A New Approach to Mideast Peace

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- When radical Islamists bomb an Israeli bus in Jerusalem four weeks after a similar attack in Tel Aviv and promise more bombs prior to Israel's 1996 elections, those who want the peace process to succeed must start thinking about a new strategy.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman, speaking after Monday's bombing, put his finger on the most crucial problem of the negotiations: the structure of the peace process. He attacked the current strategy of negotiating the smaller details of peace, while postponing the bigger questions of a final settlement.

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"In my view we have to move straight to the final settlement," Mr. Weizman said. What he was calling for was a radical change in the framework of the current peace talks.

The Oslo peace accords signed at the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat call for the peace process to proceed in stages. First came the Israeli pullout from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho; now the two sides are negotiating a much-delayed Israeli pullout from major West Bank cities that they hope to finish by the end of September.

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But the final peace -- or even a picture of what it will look like -- won't even begin to be discussed until next May. The thorniest problems -- how much land Israel will return to Palestinians, whether Jewish settlers will leave, who will control Jerusalem, and whether Palestinians get a state -- have been left until those final-status talks begin.

The idea behind the Oslo accords was that they would subject the Palestinians to a test period, which would last for up to five years. During the interim phase, the Palestinian Authority would get only limited control over administration of some occupied territories. This phase was supposed to prove whether Palestinians could run an economy and control anti-peace radicals.

And, if the Palestinians did well, that would help Mr. Rabin and the Labor Party win the 1996 elections, giving them a popular mandate to take up the much tougher issues of final peace.

Unfortunately, the "interim phase" hasn't worked as intended. This middle period seems to have inspired anti-peace zealots -- including the Islamic terror bombers of the Hamas movement and radical Jewish settlers -- to try to kill the peace before it succeeds.

This phase has gone awry for several reasons. Mr. Arafat's inept administrative style has squandered chances to make the best use of international donor money in ways that would show his own public the concrete benefits of peace.

But, uncertainty about the political future of the West Bank and Gaza has discouraged international donors whose funds are needed to create jobs for masses of unemployed West Bankers and Gazans. And attacks by Hamas bombers have forced Israel to close the borders with Gaza and the West Bank -- which has deprived tens of thousands of Palestinians of their main source of income -- jobs in Israel.

Moreover, Palestinian polls show that many Palestinians have started to believe that, as talks drag on, the "interim phase" may become permanent and that they will never get any form of independence.

Thus the "interim phase" of peace, rather than bolstering Palestinian hopes and standard of living, has unintentionally made them worse.

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At the same time, the "interim phase" has embittered many Israelis. Polls have consistently shown Israelis are willing to give up most of the West Bank and Gaza if it would guarantee their security. Even bus bombs -- up until now -- haven't changed this opinion. Escalating civil disobedience by Jewish West Bank settlers who oppose any further Israeli military pullbacks from the area have drawn few supporters, beyond settler families and ultra-religious backers of a Greater Israel.

But the continuation of Hamas terror attacks is making even liberal Israelis question whether Mr. Arafat or the Palestinians can deliver a real peace.

The solution doesn't lie simply with a military crackdown on Hamas, although this is necessary.

In recent months, informed Israeli sources say cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli intelligence organizations has increased. Palestinians, who already have imprisoned most Hamas political leaders, have started to root out members of the Hamas military underground, including possible suicide bombers.

But neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials believe the Hamas movement can be thwarted simply by military means.

In the densely populated refugee camps and slums of Gaza, where the major Hamas military operatives are hiding, the key to undercutting them is political as well as military.

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If Gazans (and West Bankers) believe that Hamas terrorists are sabotaging their chances at a better life, they will oppose the terrorism. If Gazans lose their faith that peace will be delivered, they may passively, or actively, help Hamas operatives.

And if the Palestinian peace process is halted entirely, as sought by Mr. Rabin's political opponents, Hamas attacks would certainly continue.

But were Palestinians to have a clearer idea of their future, that would give them good reason to marginalize Hamas. Were Israel willing to clarify up front that it was offering the Palestinians a state, conditional on Palestinian performance during a test phase, this would give Palestinian leaders full incentive to squelch Islamic radicals. And Israel could make implementation of final-status agreements dependent on Palestinian performance on security issues.

Prime Minister Rabin has rejected this tack, seeking to postpone the most difficult decisions on Palestinian issues until after he gets re-elected. This strategy may have made sense when the Oslo accords were drafted. But now it puts the peace and his own political future at risk.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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