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Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 18:12 GMT
Analysis: Peace in retreat
Israeli tank
Israel does not want to appear weak by withdrawing
By Gerald Butt

The road to the next possible full-scale war in the Middle East is still long and uncertain.

But the first tentative steps in that direction have been taken, with the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel and the decision by the Jordanians to delay the dispatch of their new envoy to the Jewish state.

Palestinian man, with face covered
The Palestinians are determined to keep fighting
All of a sudden, the stakes have been raised and key channels of communication have been removed.

The shadow of a new Middle East conflict has appeared because of radical changes on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

No longer is it a case of a spirited popular uprising meeting a stern military challenge. The battle between the Israeli army and the Palestinians is taking the form more and more of undeclared warfare.

Increasingly, out of a sense of desperation and frustration, ever harsher retaliation is being meted out in differing ways by each side to punish the acts of violence committed by the other.

Extreme alternatives

The most alarming aspect of the diplomatic action taken by Egypt and Jordan is that it underlines the degree to which the hostilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are being conducted in a political vacuum.

Any hope of reviving the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, or any other aspect of the Middle East peace process, seems to have disappeared. Only a radical solution seems on offer.

What is missing, therefore, is the middle ground - the scope for compromise

"Either Israel will go in and reoccupy all the Palestinian territories," an Arab diplomat in Cairo said. "Or Israel will withdraw completely. There is no other option."

The retaking of all the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Israeli army would certainly turn the current relatively low-level military conflict into a much more serious one. And there would be a strong possibility that some or all of the Arab neighbouring states would feel that they could no longer stand back and simply observe the ensuing violence.

Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Israel
In other words, it could be the recipe for a full-scale Middle East war.

The prospect, on the other hand, of Israel withdrawing from all the territories it captured in 1967 - including Arab east Jerusalem - is remote, to say the least. Israeli public opinion is divided on the subject of surrendering captured land at the best of times. Any kind of withdrawal perceived as taking place under Palestinian and Arab pressure is likely to be roundly rejected as a sign of weakness.

What is missing, therefore, is the middle ground - the scope for compromise. The absence of Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats from Israel merely underscores the fact that dialogue seems to be less and less of an option.

But the breakdown in the diplomatic process does not necessarily imply war. Rather, with the stakes rising so dangerously, the United States and the international community may yet conjure up some so far elusive measures to stop a further and more dangerous escalation of the crisis. But if not, then the gradual drift towards war could be difficult to stop.

Gerald Butt is Gulf Editor of Middle East Economic Survey (MEES).

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