September 27, 2001
Back on Track?
It is too early to tell whether the long-awaited and controversial meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will produce a true cease-fire and a resumption of peace negotiations between the two sides.
Wednesday's meeting, which produced a commitment to turn a shaky, week-old truce into a lasting cease-fire, had a symbolic significance that went beyond any of the details contained in its final communique.
It almost brought down Israel's unity government, with intense arguments raging about whether to hold the meeting at all. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found himself awkwardly placed between his government's rightist faction and Peres, his Labor Party foreign minister.
And it became entangled in a web of diplomatic maneuvering by the United States to form an international coalition against terror.
If the Peres-Arafat meeting does prove a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and the course of events in this troubled land is markedly changed, the catalyst will have been the terror attacks on America and the diplomatic aftermath.
The Palestinians say the armed intifada is now effectively over, or at least greatly reduced. They cite the categorical orders issued publicly by Arafat, in Arabic, last weekend to military and paramilitary groups under his command to cease their attacks on Israel and Israelis and to rein in the opposition and fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
They cite, too, the fact, confirmed by Israeli military sources, that the level of violence, though not completely halted -- Palestinian gunmen carried out two fatal ambushes of Israeli women driving on West Bank roads -- has dropped considerably during the past week.
Israeli sources also say that Arafat, for the first time since the intifada began exactly a year ago, is acting in earnest to restrain would-be terrorists.
This sentiment -- along with much international pressure -- helpedprovide the opening for Wednesday's meeting near the Gaza airport.
In a joint communique issued after two hours of talks, the two sides renewed their commitment to recommendations made in May by the Mitchell Commission, a U.S.-led international panel that set out a series of confidence-building measures to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The communique said the two sides would resume security cooperation, Israel would lift its blockades on Palestinian population centers and Arafat would clamp down on Palestinian attacks against Israel.
Peres and Arafat also agreed to hold a second meeting "within a week or so," the communique said.
Arafat's decision to end the violence is seen as a direct response to the popular Palestinian reaction that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Palestinian and outside observers say Arafat and his top leadership were appalled by the scenes of public rejoicing in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
For the Palestinian leadership, these scenes, captured by Western media despite the Palestinian Authority's strenuous efforts, evoked memories of Arafat's dalliance with Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War and the huge price, in terms of Western support and popularity, that the Palestinian cause paid for that blunder.
Indeed, American public support for the Palestinians fell dramatically after Sept. 11, according to polls.
Arafat knows, say analysts, that if the Palestinians' standing continues to plummet in American public and governmental opinion, there will be powerful forces in Israel that will move to exploit his weakened situation, perhaps even by removing him and his coterie altogether.
On the Israeli side, that is precisely the sentiment one hears on the political right -- much of which is represented in Sharon's Cabinet.
"If I was hesitant before Sept. 11 about a Peres-Arafat meeting, but did not act to block it," says Eli Yishai, the Shas Party leader, "after Sept. 11, I see no reason to proceed with it. It will only strengthen Arafat and weaken us."
Yishai cited top Israeli intelligence officers who had warned that such a meeting would give Arafat legitimacy in American eyes and enable him to be part of the anti-terror coalition being built by the Bush administration. Early in the week, Yishai swung his considerable political weight against the meeting -- and succeeded in having it delayed.
Without saying so explicitly, Yishai plainly agreed with hard-liners in Israel who believed that the new world configuration against terror immediately following Sept. 11 presented the Jewish state with a golden opportunity to defeat and perhaps even remove Arafat.
After all, Arafat had encouraged -- or at least not prevented -- acts of indiscriminate terrorism perpetrated against Israel over the past 12 months.
Another powerful player on the right, with influence over Sharon, is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a slew of statements since Sept. 11, Netanyahu openly compared Arafat to Osama bin Laden and said Israel should take this opportunity to get rid of him.
The former premier is plainly preparing his political comeback, preparing either to directly challenge Sharon for the Likud leadership or to lead a right-of-Likud alliance of parties to topple the premier.
Political pundits here attributed much of the prime minister's apparent zigzagging about the Peres-Arafat meeting to the Netanyahu effect.
Peres' view, diametrically opposed to that of the hard-liners, is that the trauma of Sept. 11 provides a new opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians to set aside violence and return to diplomacy.
Peres also feels Israel must, for its own national interests, respond favorably and promptly to Washington's request that it do its part to resume peace talks as its indirect contribution to the evolving anti-terror coalition. Peres broadly implied that there was massive pressure from Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Beyond the considerations of party and domestic politics, Sharon seems genuinely torn between his gut sympathy for the hard-liners and his realization that this position is out of synch with the U.S. administration, now girding itself for war.
Bush and his team, whatever their personal views of Arafat, clearly do not wish to extend their anti-terror war to include the Palestinian leader, or even the Palestinian radicals, at least at this initial stage.
What they do want is quiet on the ground and progress, or at least the impression of progress, in the long-stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.