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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Building barriers not bridges
Israeli withdrawal from Ramallah
The US will press Israel to keep out of the West Bank
test hello test
By Paul Reynolds
BBC analyst
line

With Yasser Arafat freed from the siege of his Ramallah compound and with the main part of the Israeli operation on the West Bank apparently over, the thoughts of diplomats are inevitably turning toward restarting peace talks.

Not that the phrase "peace talks" means much these days.


The fact is that nothing Mr Sharon wants to offer the Palestinians is going to be enough

The reality is that peace in the Middle East now simply means the absence of major conflict.

Take Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest plan. He intends to ask President George Bush in Washington next week for financial help in building a buffer zone - fences, ditches, gates - between Israelis and Palestinians. The intention is to stop suicide bombers.

But the plan means that his aim is really separation, not a settlement.

Twin track approach

The fact is that nothing Mr Sharon wants to offer the Palestinians is going to be enough.

Yasser Arafat turned down a ground-breaking proposal from former Israeli leader Ehud Barak at Camp David nearly two years ago. He is hardly going to settle for less now.

This will not stop the diplomats, however. And a twin track approach is emerging.

Crown Prince Abdullah
Saudi stamina has yet to be tested
First, the hope is to establish a level of calm.

The Americans and the Saudis (new players in the game, whose stamina has yet to be tested) have reportedly agreed to divide up the effort.

The Americans will press Mr Sharon to pull out and keep out of Palestinian areas.

The Saudis will tell Mr Arafat to get a grip on the extremist groups like Hamas, one of whose leaders has told the BBC that attacks on Israel will continue.

Quite what influence the Saudis think they have over Mr Arafat - who sided with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War - is unclear.

Historic shift

In the longer term, the Americans seem to have bought the idea of an international conference.


The reality - and the irony - is that, at the very moment when Arab governments as a whole have come closer to accepting Israel than ever before, the conflict preventing any progress is as bad as ever

This would centre on the Saudi plan for a recognition of Israel by the Arab world in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel to the lines as they were before the war of 1967.

There would also have to be a resolution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees who left or were driven out in the fighting of 1948.

The Saudi plan represents a historic shift. Maybe it is in advance of its time and will only come into play at a later stage.

The reality - and the irony - is that, at the very moment when Arab governments as a whole have come closer to accepting Israel than ever before, the conflict preventing any progress is as bad as ever.

This is not stopping diplomacy. But it is making it very hard.

Next week in Washington, both Mr Sharon and King Abdullah of Jordan will be seeing President Bush.

The king is very much following his father's line of moderation and is proposing a settlement similar to that put forward by the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah who saw Mr Bush in Texas last week.

Incentive

The Crown Prince was said to have been encouraged that Mr Bush was at last taking an interest in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally kept out of Middle East diplomacy.

It has an incentive to be helpful now, because it wants to improve its somewhat frayed relations with Washington.

The Saudi leaders also know that calls for internal reform are getting a more sympathetic ear in Washington these days.

After all, many of the 11 September hijackers were Saudis.

Could the outside world impose a settlement?

It is possible but not likely. It would need a huge shift by the Americans to apply a stick to the Israelis and Mr Bush is even now under pressure from Congress to swing more behind the Israelis.

It would need a huge shift by the Palestinians to be more restrained in their demands and it would need a huge shift by the Israeli to be more generous in their offers.

All that seems far away. In the meantime, work on the fences is expected to begin soon.

See also:

02 May 02 | Middle East
Triumphant Arafat emerges from siege
02 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Arafat's release
01 May 02 | Middle East
Huge turnout for Gaza victims
02 May 02 | Middle East
Blast targets British Council in Gaza
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Profile: Israel's six wanted
02 May 02 | Middle East
UN abandons Jenin probe
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Expert weighs up Jenin 'massacre'
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinians leave besieged church
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