Journalists, observers and worried friends repeatedly ask the common question: Is a new Intifada imminent? And will failed meetings and unfulfilled agreements trigger it off?
Undeniably, anger and frustration and, to a certain extent, despair are mounting on the Palestinian side. The situation has never been worse. Palestinians see no sign of hope either within the present course of the peace process, or in developments on the ground. All they see, instead, are expanding settlements arid bypass roads destroying their fields and crops, isolating their cities and villages and fragmenting their land. With this, all hopes for a new era of peace and prosperity have faded.
Clearly, Mr. Netanyahu has his own agenda, topped by his desire to be re¬elected for another four-year term. To achieve this, he has to maintain his narrow coalition with the right-wing parties, and maybe to expand it further to the extreme right. He has been conducting intensive negotiations with Moledet, an extreme-right party which calls for the transfer of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries. Besides maintaining his coalition, he is systematically courting and inciting right-wing feelings within Israeli society. The Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are, in this context, part of the "national homeland" that no one is permitted to give back to the Arabs. The question of Jerusalem is a card he is playing to more and more national support. Security, and the need - in his perception - to maintain permanent superiority over the enemy are, of course, among other cards to use in his campaign.
To Netanyahu, agreements are not binding. More important is the endeavor to justify why they have not been implemented. He is trying to represent the whole issue as one of percentages. This misleading campaign ignores all the other components of the peace agreement, such as the third phase of redeployment in the occupied territories; the safe passage to assure the integrity of the land between Gaza and the West Bank; the release of prisoners; and the cessation of unilateral steps, such as settlement expansion and the fragmentation of Palestinian land, placing Palestinians in isolated Bantustans.
In short, Netanyahu is seeking ways and means to rid himself of the agreements concluded between his predecessor and the Palestinians, to change the framework and the agenda of the peace process and to start an open-ended negotiating process while, concurrently, changing the status quo and creating facts on the ground.
President Arafat is in a real dilemma. On the one hand, he has no hope that Mr. Netanyahu will change his position. At the same time, he recognizes the importance of an increasing international sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian people. But a state cannot be built on sympathy alone. The Palestinian opposition is gaining support among Palestinian public opinion. In spite of a very slow improvement in its performance, the failure of t1:1e peace process is taking its toll on the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). More and more frequently, criticism is being leveled against it.
The continued closure and siege of the Palestinian territories, the deadlocked peace process, as well as the lack of stability and certainty have deterred foreign investment and led to a growing deterioration of the economic situation there. It has become much harder for the PNA to create jobs or to generate income, whether on the individual or national level.
This depressing atmosphere produces a highly explosive situation, raising questions about a renewed Intifada - not a blackmail or threat on the part of the Palestinians - but as an objective reading of the situation on the ground. The Intifada in its form and shape as experienced between December 1987 and the early 1990s was a historical phenomenon that is unlikely to recur for many years to come. A total impasse in the peace process might set the match to a conflagration in the area. No one can predict how it will express itself or what form it will take.
What is terrifying is the fact that too many weapons are just waiting to be used, whether among Palestinians or their fanatic neighbors, the Jewish settlers. Past experience proves that the latter place no value on Palestinian lives. Furthermore, these settlers bear no sympathy for the peace process, which they perceive as robbing them of the realization of their dream of the "Greater Land of Israel." The possibility cannot be excluded that they will misuse the weapons in their possession, fanning the fire and drawing their army, the Israel Defense Forces, into a bloody confrontation with the Palestinians.
Saving the region from sinking into a sea of blood is a matter of urgency. It is incumbent on the international community to extricate the area from the present morass. The Middle East is part of this planet: whatever happens here will, without doubt, affect other regions elsewhere.