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Analysts See Few Signs of End to Mideast Violence - 2002-02-21

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will set up security buffer zones to try to curb Palestinian attacks. But, he also says he is ready to talk peace when the violence stops. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has renewed his call for calm. Analysts on both sides of the political divide still are not persuaded the bloodshed will end any time soon.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has appealed for calm in a televised national address but says his country's security remains his first priority.

"In order to increase the security of Israeli subjects, we have decided to set up buffer zones in order to achieve security separation," he said. "A few days ago we decided to establish buffer zones and to set up obstacles along the border zones. We all want peace. We all are committed to peace. It is my aim to achieve peace, a total peace between ourselves and the Palestinians that will make it possible to live a calm and secure life for us and for them."

Mr. Sharon's statements appear aimed trying to unite an increasingly divided Israeli public.

Israeli commentator Calev Ben-David of the Jerusalem Post newspaper says Prime Minister Sharon's hard-line policy is being "pummeled on two sides every day another Israeli dies in the violence."

The hard-liners on the political right are heaping pressure on Mr. Sharon to take an even tougher approach toward the Palestinians.

But, Mr. Ben-David says Israel's pro-peace movement is calling for just the opposite. "And there is a growing stirring on the left, which is calling basically for what we call in Israel 'hafrada' or separation, which is unilateral withdrawal back to somewhere around the 1967 borders," he said. "So there is definitely a growing concern. And I think as the terror grows, the political position of Sharon is weakening."

Many will see the establishment of a security buffer zone as the first step in that direction.

At the same time, analysts say Mr. Sharon's efforts to weaken or undermine Yasser Arafat have backfired as Palestinians rally to support their leader.

Just a few hours before Mr. Sharon spoke, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat renewed his call for a cease-fire. He made the statement from his West Bank headquarters where he has been a virtual prisoner since Israel restricted his movements last December.

"I repeat again our complete commitment to what I had declared in the last December 16 for ceasing fire, to protect the peace of the brave, which we have started with my partner Yitzhak Rabin and we are completely committed to it," he said.

Nashat Aqtash of Bir Zeit University near Ramallah echoes most Palestinians when he says the bloodhshed will end only when Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Until then, he says Palestinians have the right to fight back. "Now the Palestinians have no choice. They have to defend their existence. The Israeli forces are blocking the way," he said.

Former U.S. diplomat Robert Pelletreau says the escalating violence has alarmed Israel's Arab neighbors. "I think the Arab world as a whole is alarmed by the continuation of violence and killings between Palestinians and Israelis and is interested in finding a way to break this cycle of violence, including the heavy repression on the Palestinian community and finding a way back to some constructive negotiation," he said.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah now has publicly suggested the Arab community may be ready to normalize relations with Israel if Israel negotiates a final peace settlement with the Palestinians.

But Arab diplomats complain the U.S. administration's apparent hands-off approach has only emboldened Israel's hard-line policy and antagonized the Palestinians, making the goal of peace more elusive than ever.

Egypt's ambassador in Washington, Nabil Fahmy, warns there can be no real progress until the U.S. administration, in his words, gets more forcefully engaged.

Egypt, the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has played a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The current crisis will be high on the agenda when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets with U.S. leaders next week.