The Middle East road map is finally rolling, and the person taking credit for loosening the handbrake is U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who spent the weekend meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Still, the mood in many regional newspapers was guarded, as mistrust continues to dominate Israeli–Palestinian relations.
This was plain in Israel’s dismissive response to a statement by four Palestinian organizations—Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and two leading Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad—that they would temporarily suspend attacks against Israel. Israeli suspicion, however, did not prevent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from withdrawing his forces from the northern end of the Gaza Strip Sunday night. Most papers agreed about the importance of the truce announcements, but not on an interpretation of their content. In its headline, Beirut’s Al-Mustaqbal spoke of a “Temporary and Conditional Palestinian Truce,” and the London-based Al-Hayat reaffirmed the truce’s “conditional” nature. However, the Lebanese English-language Daily Star reported that the Palestinians “demanded that Israel stop all military activities in Palestinian areas and release prisoners, but stopped short of making the demands preconditions.” The Jerusalem Post agreed, but then in the same story quoted a senior Hamas leader making what sounded pretty much like a conditional statement: “We consider ourselves free from this initiative if the Israeli enemy does not implement all the conditions.”
Another point of disagreement was the duration of the truce. The DFLP and the two Islamist groups declared a three-month lull. However, they issued their statements separately from Fatah, which, according to the Jerusalem Post, “later joined the cease-fire, saying it had accepted an Egyptian call for a six-month truce.” A wire report in the Daily Star revealed the remarkable news that it was not Arafat or Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas who actually negotiated the truce on Fatah’s behalf, but Marwan Barghouti, the intifada leader currently in Israeli custody who is popular with rank-and-file Fatah militants. Indeed, the paper claimed Fatah delayed announcing its cease-fire because Arafat and Abbas were unhappy that they were bypassed by Barghouti.
A number of Arab and Israeli papers focused on Rice’s criticism of the gigantic security fence Israel is building in the West Bank. Beirut’s left-wing Al-Safir highlighted the criticism in a headline, while Israel’s Ha’aretz daily noted, “In a Sunday meeting of the security cabinet, Rice was quoted as saying that Washington sees the West Bank fence as an attempt to establish a political border [and] that even if the separation fence isn’t actually a political issue, it has the appearance of [one].” Rice was referring to the fact that in several areas the fence cuts into Palestinian West Bank territory, sometimes several miles, so that it is increasingly being viewed not just as a safety barrier, but as a means of expropriating Palestinian land. According to Al-Hayat, Sharon rejected Rice’s comments, arguing the fence was built solely for security. He said “he was unwilling to go back on the matter even if this provoked a dispute with Washington.” The paper also noted that Sharon told Rice he would not implement the next stage of the “road map” if the Palestinian Authority failed to dismantle armed Palestinian groups.
The tone was different in Syria, where Damascus took a soft line on the modest progress in Palestinian-Israeli relations. The Syrian official daily Teshreen quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa saying, in reference to the Palestinian truce, “Syria blesses any agreement between the Palestinians that secures [their] unity, the main factor building peace.” Sharaa also said that the road map marginalized the Syrian and Lebanese negotiating tracks with Israel. Syrian President Bashar Assad echoed this anxiety, with Al-Safir focusing on his statement in Aleppo that there had to be a “debate” on “mechanisms to achieve peace in the region.” According to Al-Hayat, the Syrians were also conciliatory on the fate of five injured border guards currently in U.S. custody. The five were injured in a clash with U.S. soldiers on June 18, apparently while the latter were pursuing a convoy of suspected Iraqi officials. Sharaa said Syria hoped for a solution to the problem “far from any escalation or misunderstanding between Syria and America.”
Escalation and misunderstanding have become by-words in neighboring Iraq. Several papers commented on growing Iraqi anger against the Anglo-American occupation. Al-Mustaqbal pointed to a significant development in Najaf, where a senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, forbidding Iraqis to accept any new constitution prepared by the Anglo-American occupation authorities. Instead, Sistani called on Iraqis to demand the formation of an Iraqi body to write and vote on a constitution. This came as U.S. forces began Operation Sidewinder to crack down on armed Iraqi resistance, and as the American civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, announced he was hopeful former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be arrested or killed. Beirut’s Daily Star remained unconvinced, arguing in an editorial, that Bremer has to change tack:
The occupiers cannot leave for fear of losing face, but they cannot stay without taking a steady stream of casualties. And by seeking to quell resistance by undertaking the sort of heavy-handed action that fueled it in the first place, the coalition is demonstrating a profound lack of imagination.