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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Risks and rewards of Mid-East truce
Palestinian youths
Yasser Arafat has called a ceasefire on all fronts
By Paul Wood in Jerusalem

Prodded by the United States, Israel is pulling back its forces and the Palestinians are enforcing strict orders not to initiate violence.

The tentative ceasefire is crucial to Washington's efforts to bring moderate Arab and Muslim states into a global coalition against terrorism.

The next suicide bomb could blow apart not just human beings, but also the fragile movement for peace

Both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority are acting now so as to avoid any suggestion that they are obstructing American diplomatic efforts.

Behind this lies a worried calculation of self-interest.

The two sides know that the tidal wave of righteous anger building in the US has the power to destroy whoever is unwise enough to stand in its path.

Israel sees both danger and opportunity in the transformed international landscape emerging as the smoke clears in New York and Washington.

The opportunity is for the global war on terror to become a war against the Palestinian Authority too, freeing Israel to use its massive advantage in men and arms.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon said he will not endanger Israel's national interests
The danger is that as the US calls for calm in the Middle East, Israel is seen to fail America in its hour of greatest need.

Those, like the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, who see this danger seem to have the upper hand in the Israeli cabinet, so for the moment at least, peace talks are back on the agenda.

"Undoubtedly the time has come to meet," Mr Peres said, "once a ceasefire is in effect, then we can go into political discussions."

Most observers agree that moving the process on to substantive political discussions will be vital if the ceasefire is to hold.

Palestinian fears

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, knows only too well that being on the wrong side in the war on terror would give the Israelis an opening to crush him and his fledgling state.

Western diplomats who have met Mr Arafat in recent days say he is serious about doing everything in his power to maintain the truce.

He told his security forces to enforce the ceasefire on all fronts, and in every town and village.

"I also instructed them to exercise maximum self-restraint in the face of Israeli aggression and attacks," he said.

Palestinian protester
Islamic militants have rejected the ceasefire
As one sign of Palestinian good faith, United Nations sources say that the Palestinians arrested a radical Islamic suicide bomber yesterday in the West Bank town of Nablus - and did so after a tip-off by Israeli intelligence.

But history in the Middle East shows that ceasefires are often precarious, and many promises by both sides to stop the violence have not been held since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, erupted almost a year ago.

In Gaza, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, the leader of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, said there could be no ceasefire until Israeli occupation had ended.

The fear is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will continue their operations.

The next suicide bomb could blow apart not just human beings, but also the fragile movement for peace being held together by little more than American pressure.

Iraqi danger

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has said he will not do anything he believes is against Israel's vital national interests in order to facilitate American coalition building.

His government has been dragged only reluctantly to talks with the Palestinians.

What was the trade off?

Saddam Hussein
Israel believes Saddam Hussein still possesses the capability to attack her
Perhaps, according to one line of speculation, it is for the US to deal once and for all with Iraq.

That would entail air strikes to destroy the missiles and launchers still capable of hitting Israeli soil.

It implies, also, a serious attempt to depose Saddam Hussein - a longstanding goal of the US.

Iraq is already on the US list of states sponsoring terrorism.

America accuses Saddam of trying to assassinate President Bush senior after the Gulf War.

The US believes there was a link between Iraqi intelligence and the first bombing of the World Trade Centre, in 1993.

With increasing frequency, American officials are talking about a possible connection between Iraq and the atrocities perpetrated last week in New York and Washington.

If American action is to go wider than surgical strikes on Afghanistan, it is logical that Iraq would be the next target.

Certainly that is the assumption the Israeli defence and political establishments are working on.

Extra gas mask are being passed out to Israeli army units.

Israel fears and believes that if the US does attack Iraq, Saddam will fire everything he has left at Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
says that he will be meeting with Arafat within the next couple of days
Middle East analyst Joanna Speer
"Israel doesn't want to be the problem that stops the US going after the terrorists"
See also:

20 Sep 01 | Middle East
Killing mars Mid-East ceasefire
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