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Dateline: Middle East Peace Process and Terrorism - 2001-09-19

As the United States continues to recover from last week's terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, a new development in the Middle East may influence the responses to the global problem of terrorism by both the international community and Washington.

On Tuesday, reports from the Middle East indicated that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli government declared a cease-fire in the troubled region. Mr. Arafat said his orders to his forces were not to launch any attacks on Israeli soldiers and show what he termed "maximum restraint" if fired upon. Israel, for its part, promised not to attack any Palestinians and withdrew its tanks from West Bank towns.

Mr. Arafat told diplomats in Gaza City that both Palestinians and Israelis need to cooperate in order to break the ongoing cycle of violence. He added that Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to live behind safe and secure boundaries.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres greeted Mr. Arafat's remarks by replying that talks between the two sides could start in a matter of days, as he put it, if the cease-fire holds. Nearly a year of renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians have claimed nearly 700 lives.

Early reports indicated that sporadic fighting erupted in the first few hours following the announced cease-fire.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed the developments and was hopeful the violence would be reduced. "I have spoken to Prime Minister Sharon, and to Chairman Arafat, and to Foreign Minister Peres over the developments in the Middle East. Chairman Arafat has issued some strong, positive statements in respect to the situation in the region, and the efforts he will be making to reduce, to eliminate the violence," said Mr. Powell. "I'm pleased that Foreign Minister Peres and Prime Minister Sharon affirmed to me that they would be doing everything on their side to disengage from the opportunities for conflict with the Palestinians in specific towns and cities so as to have a separation that might encourage a state of non-violence. And so this is an encouraging development. I hope that both sides can take advantage of this encouraging development and it will lead to additional meetings."

Secretary of State Powell added that the United States encouraged military leaders on both sides to reconstitute security talks. "We have also encouraged commanders on both sides to talk to one another, and we're looking at the beginning of security committee dialog once again," he said.

Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, a former Chief Representative of the League of Arab States to the United Nations, says by declaring a cease-fire, Yasser Arafat wants to show that the agenda of the Palestinians is not tied to that of the terrorists who attacked the United States. "Well, I think that Chairman Arafat must have called for the cease-fire in order not to allow what has been happening in the last few days when Mr. Sharon prevented Peres from meeting with Arafat, and when the Israeli occupation army was penetrating into many areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority," says Mr. Maksoud. "In order not to be perceived as Sharon was perceived, that his whole agenda to be an exploitation of the terrorist tragedy that has befallen the United States to show that the Palestinians are not going to use this tragedy in order to set forward their own agenda."

But Robert Lieber, Professor of Government at Georgetown University and a scholar who has followed the peace talks closely, believes that Chairman Arafat's words must be reinforced by concrete accomplishments on the ground. "Well, the statements are new. The real issue will be if the reality on the ground conforms to this. Let me begin by saying that Arafat has made a series of pledges in the past over the last seven or eight years about cease-fires, and almost invariably in the end, the pledge proved to be unreal. That is, it was not done on the ground," says Mr. Lieber. "The other key point is that the Israeli reprisals and attacks have been exclusively in response to Palestinian military and terror attacks in Israel. If the Palestinians cease their attacks against the Israelis, the fighting will end, which would be a desirable course of action, if that happens."

The past week's attacks on the United States and the expected U.S. response forced the Israeli-Palestinian peace process off the front pages even though many analysts believe it is one of several factors at the heart of last week's terrorist strikes. With the United States seeking help from both the Israelis and the Palestinians to combat global terrorism, both sides may be re-evaluating their current positions.

Many experts who study terrorism believe the Middle East Peace Process is not the prime factor in the terrorist attacks, but Ambassador Clovis Maksoud says it remains part of the Arab and Muslim response to last week's tragedy in the United States. "It may be linked in a circumstantial manner in the sense that now, many issues, not only the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but many others," he said. "But what the Palestinians, and the Arabs and Muslims in general, are trying to express their solidarity and their anger at the terrorist activity, separate from their individual agendas."

If Yasser Arafat can maintain a general cease-fire on the part of Palestinians, it could put him into direct conflict with radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Senior Muslim clergymen with ties to Hamas issued a religious edict on Tuesday, proclaiming that those siding with the United States against Muslims are traitors.

But Robert Lieber of Georgetown University thinks that hard-line Islamic groups pose no real threat to Yasser Arafat. "There's a good deal of evidence that Arafat and key elements of his forces - Force 17, Fatah and so on have had a substantial degree of coordination and cooperation with the more extreme terrorist groups, particularly in the last year or so," he said. "I'm skeptical that those groups represent a threat to Arafat personally. If Arafat really means to have a cease-fire, I think there's reason to think that he can achieve that."

For his part, Ambassador Clovis Maksoud thinks that the initiative by Chairman Arafat, and the reciprocity by Israel, marks a diplomatic form of fighting terrorists. "I don't think Arafat or anybody should be hostage to whatever these terrorists view," he said. "I mean, it should not be. The level of indifference to what their views are is a form of combating terrorism."

In the past, several cease-fire arrangements by Israelis and Palestinians have collapsed with renewed levels of fighting erupting soon after. But a senior Palestinian official told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Chairman Yasser Arafat hopes to write a new chapter in relations with Israel following last week's terrorist attack against the United States.

International officials are hopeful that a meeting will take place soon between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Jordan's government has said that the events following the attacks on the United States must not hamper diplomatic efforts to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

With the announcement of the latest cease-fire, Middle East analysts like Robert Lieber will be watching to see if Yasser Arafat can truly enforce a truce. "The question is whether his words will be followed by deeds," says Mr. Lieber. "If he does tell his people to stop firing, that would be a very constructive thing." Reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could help remove a major international problem staring Washington right in the face as it seeks both military and diplomatic solutions to the fight against terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East.