Just like the (good?) old days

JERUSALEM — It’s like the intifada never happened.

American diplomats mobbed the streets of Jerusalem this week. Even Iran point man Dennis Ross, whose sad-sack demeanor was a frequent feature of the Oslo peace process, stopped by to keep the U.S. defense secretary, the Mideast peace envoy, and the national security adviser company.

Meanwhile, in Palestinian politics, where hatred of Israel once brought everyone together for secret terror summits, Hamas again hates Fatah, which hates Hamas and also dislikes itself. In Israel, the two most powerful men are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

Just like the old days. Before the five years of violence known as the intifada that began in September 2000, when Palestinian riots turned into gunbattles and the Israeli army reoccupied all the Palestinian towns it had evacuated during the previous seven years of the peace process.

Except there’s one reminder this week that the intifada actually did take place: Fouad Shoubaki is still screwed.

The man who ran military procurement and budgets for Yasser Arafat was convicted by an Israeli military court Wednesday of handing on $7 million worth in arms to the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which used the weapons to kill Israelis during the intifada.

The court also found Shoubaki guilty of paying $125,000 (from Arafat) to fund the voyage of a ship called the Karine A. When Israeli commandos from the Shayetet 13 — the equivalent of the Navy Seals — captured the Karine A in January 2002, it was carrying 50 tons of guns, missiles and material, loaded on board by Hezbollah operatives off the Iranian coast.

Though the intifada was 15 months old at the time the Karine A was captured, many in Washington and other world capitals became convinced that Arafat really did think he was at war with Israel. They stopped talking about “putting the peace process back on track.” Until recently.

The Palestinians put Shoubaki in jail in Jericho. The Israelis said all along that he was just a fall guy being held for appearances sake. In 2006, when it seemed Shoubaki might be released, the Israelis raided the Jericho jail and captured him. His trial lasted three years.

In the court, Shoubaki claimed to “have sought peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis and to build neighborly relations.” He said he was close to current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who’s considered a moderate in favor of peace talks with Israel (although he won’t talk to them just now).

But the court also heard that Shoubaki admitted some unneighborly actions during his interrogation by the Israeli domestic security service, the Shin Bet.

He was the go-between for Arafat’s contacts with Imad Mughniya, a top Hezbollah operative believed to have been behind the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed more than 300 people. (Mughniya, whose bloody resume was much longer than can be detailed here, died in a car bomb in Damascus in February last year. Hezbollah factions, the Syrian government and the Israeli Mossad have all been blamed for his killing at one time or another.)

Shoubaki maintained, under interrogation, that he was just following orders. Arafat signed off on all the payments and it was a time of war, so Shoubaki can’t be held responsible, he argued. At his sentencing next month, the 70-year-old looks certain to get life.

Shoubaki’s activities seem to belong to a distant era, now that the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank are following orders from their U.S. adviser, Gen. Keith Dayton, and Israeli officials describe cooperation as better even than during the Oslo period.

But it’s only a few years, really. Many of the same people are in power on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The same is true of much of the U.S. negotiating team. While they may not be capable of messing up on the scale Arafat managed in the early years of the intifada, there are signs that what seemed like momentum two months ago is fizzling.

The U.S. had demanded a freeze on construction in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Special envoy George Mitchell was here this week trying to get the Israelis to agree to a partial freeze. Israeli officials say the Americans are now attempting to get the Israelis to stop some construction in return for a removal of restrictions in certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlements.

But such new construction will take up Palestinian land just like the settlements whose expansion Israel is on track to halt. And the settlements which will get the green light are where the building is most frenetic, because of high birth rates among ultra-Orthodox communities.

The Palestinians, too, are repeating the mistakes that led them to bring the Oslo edifice down about their own heads. A meeting set for next week in Bethlehem to reform the ruling Fatah faction may not go ahead, and even if it does it won’t sweep away as many corrupt old hacks as the party’s young guard wants.

Last time that happened, the young leaders decided to destroy the peace process, which formed the power base of the old cadres, so that Arafat would have to turn to them for support. It didn’t work out, of course, but there are plenty who might want to have another shot.

Shoubaki may be going to jail forever, but his old pals might soon need his Rolodex.

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