After more than two years of a downward spiral in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the prospect of a new regional balance after an anticipated American war on Iraq is concentrating Israeli and Palestinian minds.
Both sides want to be ready for any new American demands after the dust settles in Baghdad. And so, after months of icy silence, Israeli and Palestinian officials have started talking again -- and the upshot could be a new cease-fire.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his aim is to create a basis for a major peace initiative later in the year. His critics, however, aren't so sure: They accuse Sharon of going through the motions to keep the international community happy and to lure the Labor Party into his coalition.
Talks have been taking place on three levels:
Sharon himself met Ahmad Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, to discuss renewing the peace process and what it could offer the Palestinians;
Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, has been discussing cease-fire terms with the Palestinian Authority's interior minister, Hani Hassan, who is in charge of Palestinian security affairs; and Ohad Marani, director general of Israel's Finance Ministry, negotiated with P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad the transfer of $60 million in Palestinian tax money that Israel had withheld since the intifada began in September 2000.
In addition to those cynics who say Sharon's recent flurry of moves aren't sincere and intended to attract the Labor Party to the government, others say Sharon simply recognizes that the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein will create a window of diplomatic opportunity in the region, and is signaling to the international community that he is prepared to move toward a Palestinian state as envisaged by President Bush.
But Sharon doesn't want to be rushed. Therefore, he recently set up a team under dovish Likud Party legislator Dan Meridor to coordinate future moves with the United States, preempting pressure on Israel from the international community, especially the European Union.
Meridor is said to be working on a new Israeli-American peace plan based on understandings reached by Sharon and Bush in a number of recent conversations.
Sharon also invited Fayyad to his farm, where he outlined reforms the Palestinian Authority must make before serious peace talks can resume.
Sharon's main demand is that P.A. President Yasser Arafat be stripped of his executive powers and pushed into a ceremonial role, with real power transferred to a prime minister. Fayyad is a leading candidate for the job -- and would probably be the first choice of Israel and the United States.
In the few months since he took charge of Palestinian financial affairs, Fayyad has proven himself competent and trustworthy, sincerely committed to Bush's vision of Israeli and Palestinian states living as peaceful neighbors and cooperating economically.
With Fayyad as prime minister, Israeli and American officials believe Bush's two-state vision could become a reality. But it's not clear whether Fayyad has sufficient standing among the Palestinian public to win the job. Nor is it clear whether American and Israeli support will hurt Fayyad's chances of taking power.
Most pressing, however, is a cease-fire, without which nothing will go forward. In talks with Hassan, Israeli officials are reviving the idea of a "rolling" cease-fire that would begin in a limited geographic area and, if it holds there, would spread until it encompasses the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At that point, Israeli troops could withdraw to positions they held before the intifada began, and more comprehensive peace talks could begin.
The trouble is that similar ideas have been tried before and failed. Putative cease-fires in Gaza and the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron failed to hold when the Palestinian Authority declined to confront terrorist groups.
Hassan suggested that things will be different this time. Speaking in Nablus last weekend, he said he soon would present a detailed Palestinian proposal for a cease-fire beginning in Ramallah, where Arafat has been holed up in his battered headquarters for more than a year.
This time, Hassan said, a cease-fire would be respected by all parts of Arafat's Fatah movement, including Al-Aksa Brigade terrorists who have carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against Israel.
Hassan acknowledged that one of the main reasons for the Palestinians' newfound seriousness is the anticipated war on Iraq, which he believes will radically change the rules in the Middle East.
The Palestinians must change course, he believes, by stopping terrorism and turning to political moves.
"It is time to harvest the political fruits," Hassan said, "and we cannot afford to make any mistakes this time."
Both Jordan and Egypt are actively involved in the efforts to revive the political process. On Sunday, Weisglass went to Amman to brief the Jordanians, while Ephraim Halevy, the new chief of Israel's National Security Council, has been keeping Egypt updated.
Jordan and Egypt also are motivated by visions of a changing Middle East: Egypt especially hopes to impress a presumably victorious United States by helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Egypt has made a major effort to get all Palestinian terrorist organizations to stop attacking Israel, and risked losing face when the radicals refused.
Undeterred, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Sharon for talks in Sharm el-Sheik, the first invitation by an Arab leader since Sharon was first elected prime minister in February 2001.
Still, some pundits argue that Sharon is only feinting toward a peace deal to entice Labor into his coalition. If so, it's not working.
Labor Party leaders say they don't believe Sharon has any real intention of moving toward peace. In a recent meeting with Amram Mitzna, they note, Sharon lectured the Labor chairman on the importance of Netzarim and Kfar Darom, two Gaza Strip settlements that Mitzna says should be evacuated.
Mitzna maintains that Sharon's attitude to the settlements shows he isn't ready to make peace, and that he wants Labor in his coalition so he can drag his feet indefinitely. Sharon aides retort that the prime minister sees a post-Iraq situation in which peacemaking with the Palestinians will be a real possibility: After Saddam falls, Sharon reckons, Arafat will be the next to go.
Then, Sharon said, people like Qurie, Fayyad and Hassan, who want a new deal for the Palestinians, will be able to make reciprocal moves toward peace without hindrance.