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Mike Hanna: Strong words a new strategy for Sharon?

Mike Hanna
Mike Hanna  

Mike Hanna is a CNN correspondent based in Jerusalem.

Q: In an interview Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a murderer and a pathological liar. Is the use of such language a new strategy to try to halt the violence in the wake of the bombing last Friday?

HANNA: The Israeli prime minister made those comments in an interview with a Russian television station broadcast in Israel, which was subsequently rebroadcast on Israeli national television. It is a new form of language since Prime Minister Sharon took office. He had made similar statements when he was in opposition and during his campaign for prime minister.

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It would appear such comments certainly increase the tension between the political leaders. The Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, while not directly criticizing his prime minister, said that it would be difficult if one branded Arafat a traitor to subsequently negotiate with such a person, making quite clear that he, as a foreign minister at least, still sees Mr. Arafat as a negotiating partner, or potential negotiating partner, whereas Mr. Sharon's statements would seem to be ruling that out.

Q:What effect has this war on words had on public opinion about the situation?

HANNA: Essentially, it does appear to be interpreted as a strategy to bring even more pressure to bear on Mr. Arafat. This is from the Israeli side. That the potential for agreement for some form of cessation at hostilities is increasing. That this possibility is becoming more and more real. And, therefore, the strategy, according to some Israelis, is a tactic being adopted by Mr. Sharon to persuade Mr. Arafat of his shortness of patience with regard to seeing tangible results on the ground.

Through Palestinian eyes such statements are seen very differently. They are seen as a direct challenge, they are seen as an insult, and they are seen as being spoken by someone not interested in finding a peaceful solution to the problem.

Q: What has come of the unilateral cease-fire that was declared? Has each side kept to their promises?

HANNA: Once again there has been a degree of confusion with the term cease-fire. What precisely has happened is that Israel declared unilaterally a cease-fire, in terms of which it said it would not take any proactive military actions. In other words, its forces would operate only in defense. The Palestinians have signaled the intention for calling for an end to complete hostilities on the ground within Israel itself, therefore, saying that there will be a suspension of acts of violence directed against Israelis within Israel.

These are two unilateral declarations of intent. Each side says that the other side's declaration is a trick or is a ploy. What the diplomats are attempting to do at present is to formalize a joint declaration on the cessation of hostilities. What they want is a formalized agreement to begin implementing ways to end the ongoing conflict. What we have at the present time are unilaterally declared intentions by each side, which neither side believes the other has any intention of carrying out. The diplomats are trying to bridge that and make the real cessation of hostilities or cease-fire come into affect on the ground.

Q:What happens now?

HANNA:That's the fundamental question because the only people who can come to any form of agreement with regard to ending the violence as a very first tiny baby step before any further talk about negotiation can take place are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders themselves. This is a point that has been made clear by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations--that while the international community is prepared to do what it can to help the process, ultimately it is up to Israeli and Palestinian leaders themselves to take those steps to begin implementing a cessation of hostilities on the ground. Within the terms of that, then it would appear to most impartial observers that Mr. Sharon's statements, while sending a strong signal to the Israeli public that he will not necessarily continue with what many see as an unpopular policy, is running the risk of alienating, pushing away and eventually having no one with whom to negotiate.

Q:Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

HANNA: The situation on the ground at the moment is very much a waiting period. The diplomats are carrying out their flurry of diplomatic activities. They are attempting to find building blocks to forge a formal agreement between the two sides as to how to address the problem of breaking the cycle of violence.

While they are doing this, however, the situation on the ground remains a constant threat to these diplomatic attempts. The unilaterally declared cease-fires by each side may not be enough in terms of dissuading the followers that it is worthwhile to stop their activities aimed against what they see as the enemies on the other side. What this means is that at any stage an incident of violence can create a chain reaction, which, once again, completely undermines and destroys all diplomatic events. The international diplomats involved in the new initiative are well aware of this and what they are trying to do is move as quickly as possible to get formal agreement by the leaders which the people on the ground can then see this is not a short-term period, that this is part of a principle agreed to by both Israeli and Palestinian leadership. International diplomats regard this as the critical aspect of what is happening at the moment.

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