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Can Moderate Voices Still Be Heard Amid Tensions in the Mideast? - 2002-06-28

Israeli troops have been engaged in a massive operation inside the Palestinian territories, in response to another series of Palestinian suicide attacks. As a result of the violence, the dream of a negotiated settlement to the conflict anytime soon, appears to be fading.

The violence also seems to have drowned out the voices of Israelis and Palestinians who spoke out in favor of the peace process when it began in the early 1990s. But people on both sides say they still believe there will be a solution sometime in the future.

The popularity of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon soared in opinion polls following Israel's military operation in the West Bank earlier this year. Some surveys gave him a personal approval rating as high as 70 per cent.

The poll figures have slipped a bit since then, but not enough to shake his confidence that he is on the right track. And, following yet another series of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israel launched a new military campaign that Prime Minister Sharon says will be "extensive."

Mr. Sharon has constantly blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the violence. President Bush appears to support that stand. The president has called for new Palestinian leadership, although he did not mention Mr. Arafat by name in a speech outlining his Middle East proposals.

Although Mr. Sharon has strong backing from the White House, and local public opinion studies indicate solid Israeli support for his policies, some analysts believe there is another side to the story.

The Israeli co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, Gershon Baskin, said the polls also show the Israeli public more than ever wants a settlement of the conflict.

"The Israeli public has no problem with the establishment of a Palestinian state today. The problem is that it is not today that they are talking about. It is tomorrow or the day after. And if we are not talking about today, where the name of the game is war and fighting the Palestinians, then lets bring in the big guns and Ariel Sharon is the big gun," Mr. Baskin said.

Mr. Sharon, himself, is on record as supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state. But he wants this to happen only through a long-term process after the violence has ended.

Mr. Baskin said he believes that as a result of the bloodshed that began in September, 2000, ordinary people on both sides also find it hard to talk about peace. "I think that the people who would be called the moderates, the members of the peace camp, have not changed their political views on the outcome, what the endgame is of this conflict, what the peace means. But they have lost faith in what peace means at this time, as a result of the violence and the terrorism on the Israeli side. And on the Palestinian side, as a result of the Israeli brutality, the amount of force that Israel is using. It's difficult to stand up and have a clear voice for peace when it looks so impossible to achieve," he said.

However, Yossi Beilin, a member of Israel's Labor Party who was involved in the Oslo peace process that was launched in 1993, said he believes Mr. Sharon is not invincible. He said that his own political faction is largely to blame for keeping Mr. Sharon in power, by agreeing to serve in his coalition. This has meant that the natural voice of the opposition has been muted.

"On the Israeli side, the main problem is the unity government, when the Labor Party which should have been the most important party in opposition, it is still the biggest party in Israel. Rather than doing that, it joined the government of Sharon, it is not such a surprise that Sharon is so popular," Mr. Beilin said.

He said Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, a Labor Party leader and an architect of the Oslo accords, struggles with his conscience daily. Mr. Beilin said that he hopes Mr. Peres and the rest of the Labor faction will finally agree to leave the cabinet.

"What do you think, that Shimon Peres is happy to see the Israeli army entering Ramallah every day and destroying another room in the Mukatta (Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters)? That this is his policy?" Mr. Beilin said.

The Palestinian co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, Zacharia al-Qaq, is not so optimistic that there will be any major changes.

He said he believes that both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, have allowed events on the ground to reach a point, where violence, not policies, are influencing public opinion and determining the future of the region.

"Well, I think that not only the moderates, the whole voices of the peace camp are now silenced, because what is happening now is a mess and the prospect is grim and no one is in control of the situation, and nobody has a reading of the final destination. And nobody has the road map to know where are going from here. I think the voices of the moderates are shrinking or diminishing on the Palestinian side as well as on the Israeli side," Mr. al-Qaq said.

Still his Israeli co-director, Mr. Baskin, believes that if the leaders are changed and some form of quiet can be maintained, then hopes will return to the troubled Middle East.

"When we can get back to that point where people believe peace is possible, perhaps when some of the political constellations change, when some of the political personalities change, the public will be there, supporting peace again," Mr. Baskin said.

But while Mr. Baskin and others keep their hopes alive for a resumption of dialogue, they also admit that with the fighting intensifying, it is impossible to predict that negotiations might be revived any time soon.