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The Mideast: A Glimmer of Hope amid the Gunsmoke

Former Senator George P. Mitchell's long-awaited report on Israeli-Palestinian violence, released on May 21, could offer the two parties a way out of what seems to be an inexorably escalating war. But whether either will make serious moves to end the conflict is another question.

The Palestinians have called for a summit based on the Mitchell proposals. These include an immediate cease-fire, a crackdown by the Palestinian authority on local terrorists, and a halt to Israeli settlement-building. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sounded mildly conciliatory on May 22, talking of a compromise on the settlements, a key sore point. He also ordered Israeli forces only to return fire if shot at.

What happens over the coming weeks will depend on how much pressure the U.S. and European countries manage to exert on the Palestinians and Israelis. Events on the ground could also play a role. Another suicide bombing, for instance, could derail tentative efforts to reach a cease-fire. Most important, it's not clear that either military wants to back down. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat is unlikely to heed calls for a crackdown on attacks on Israelis unless he gains something he can claim as a win. Sharon blames Arafat for the violence and will resist anything that smacks of rewarding him for it.

So unless a cease-fire is secured, the combatants on both sides will hold sway. The Israeli Cabinet has given Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer authority to sign off on military attacks without consulting the rest of the government. "The strategy means an immediate and continuous response to Palestinian attacks," says Gerald M. Steinberg, an expert on conflict at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

The Israeli military seems increasingly to be calling the shots. The most vivid example of intensified military activity so far came on May 18, when Israeli F-16 fighters bombed Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza. On the Palestinian side, for all practical purposes, the agenda is being set by militant groups such as Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed five people in the coastal town of Netanya that same day.

It's clear that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is supposed to keep order, is on life support. The Israeli blockades have drastically reduced the local Palestinian government's effectiveness. "If the current situation continues, then the Palestinian Authority will be unable to pay salaries within three or four months and will collapse," predicts Khalil Shikaki, director of the Center for Palestine Research & Studies, an independent think tank.

NEW TARGETS. Some analysts feel that is precisely Sharon's chief goal--to achieve the downfall of Arafat and the PA. As this line of thinking goes, if Arafat cannot control terrorist attacks, Israel has no use for him. The danger is that the Palestinian areas may come to resemble Beirut two decades ago, with gunmen and religious groups filling the vacuum left by ruined governmental institutions.

Arafat and his key aides can no longer be considered off-limits to Israeli attacks. That was the message of the May 20 shelling of the home of Palestinian Security Chief Jibril Rajoub. But this hard-line approach could eventually backfire. If the PA and its security apparatus are destroyed, extremists like Hamas are likely to have an even freer hand. And the possibility of any sort of lasting accommodation will recede even further. There will simply be no one to call. That's all the more reason for both sides to grab the lifeline that Mitchell and the international community are holding out. Egypt-watchers are worried that the country's internal security establishment is gaining an unhealthy degree of power. The seven-year jail sentence handed down by a state security court to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian-American sociologist, on May 21 adds to that suspicion. Ibrahim was jailed for a study critical of Egypt's election system. Some 27 other employees of Ibrahim's think tank, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, also received sentences. A professor at the American University in Cairo, Ibrahim is known for his efforts to promote democracy. Analysts fear that Cairo may be endangering relations with the U.S. and marring its reputation for tolerance by suppressing academics who appear to pose little threat to the regime. Poland's newest political movement, Civic Platform (CP), has proposed a radical program aimed at tackling the country's 15.9% unemployment rate. The center-right group wants to exempt employers from paying Poland's 46% social security taxes for a year, as well as cut corporate and personal income taxes. The proposals are sure to influence debate in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept. 23. Founded five months ago by defectors from Poland's Solidarity and Freedom Union parties, CP enjoys the support of 18% of voters and is aiming to take the second-largest bloc of seats in parliament. The Democratic Left Alliance, with 40% support, is likely to win the largest share of the 460-seat assembly.

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