Theres little reason to believe a cease-fire can succeed

JERUSALEM — Will a cease-fire work in the Mideast?

Many say it has little or no chance of succeeding.

U.S. envoy General Anthony Zinni, the Palestinians and the Israelis all face virtually insurmountable problems.

For Zinni and members of the Bush administration it's a question of getting an extremely delicate carrot and stick balancing act right. The margin for error is tiny.

For example, to get the Palestinians to join a political process, the Americans need to assure them that there are political gains to be had. So President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell speak openly and often about a vision of Palestine and Israel coexisting in peace and security.

They need to show "even-handedness," so they publicly pressure Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory.

The message to the Palestinians is supposed to be that moderation will be rewarded, and that they can get from the Americans what they cannot achieve through violence. Vice President Cheney, in his visit to Israel this week, said he would hold his first meeting with Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat once a cease-fire is in place.

But the message that many Palestinians actually hear is that violence pays. The more they use terror, the greater the price the Americans are prepared to pay to get them to stop.

Many Palestinians also have problems with the Tenet-Mitchell formula that goes into effect immediately after the signing of an American-mediated cease-fire.

According to Tenet-Mitchell — named for CIA Director George Tenet and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell –the Palestinians must arrest wanted men, decommission weapons and stop incitement.

Palestinian leaders are already saying openly that in the present climate they may not be able to come up with the goods. After the recent Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory, Palestinian leaders say they couldn't order arrests or collect weapons and Arafat may longer have the clout to restrain armed men.

Never mind the rejectionist organizations, the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who will continue to try to wage terror no matter what — and especially if there seems to be progress toward a peaceful solution. But Arafat's own Fatah group, the Tanzim, has an agenda of its own.

These young men, who grew up under occupation, are involved in a power struggle with the older generation Arafat brought with him from Tunis, when he returned to the Palestinian areas as part of the Oslo agreement in 1994.

The men from Tunis are associated with Oslo, and Tanzim leaders like Marwan Barghouti challenge them by discrediting Oslo.

The violence they wage against Israel is a means of building their power base on the Palestinian street and is part of an unstated struggle for succession. What they do if Arafat signs onto a cease-fire will be crucial.

For Sharon, the problems are equally complex.

The more the forces under Arafat, like the Tanzim, are involved in terror, the more Sharon strikes at Arafat's Palestinian Authority, rendering it less able to control those forces, especially Tanzim.

Ostensibly the defection of the far-right National Unity — Israel, Our Home alliance from his government should give Sharon more freedom to maneuver vis a vis the Palestinians and open up new diplomatic avenues.

But in practice, he will still have them and the right wing of his own Likud breathing down his neck and calling any political concessions he makes to the Palestinians a sellout.

Moreover, the most substantial diplomatic move made by the Sharon government is one that, ironically, Sharon does not approve of.

Sharon argues that early statehood could be seen as reward for violence and encourage more. And some Palestinian leaders fear that accepting a mini-state on part of the West Bank and Gaza could take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda and leave them with nothing more.

So how to square the circle — or circles?

How do you convince Palestinians they have everything to gain by talking and nothing by shooting? How do you convince Israelis that once Palestinian national aspirations are achieved, the shooting will stop?

The situation is too complex and charged for the parties to resolve alone and it is extremely difficult for third parties to push the right buttons.

But without an active, concerned and determined third party, like the Americans, to win confidence, bridge gaps and underwrite agreements, nothing positive will be achieved.