Israelis have learned the hard way not to invest too many hopes in Yasser Arafat. Yet this week, despite the suicide bombing in Kfar Saba, the booby-trapped car in Or Yehuda, the renewed sniping at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, straws are wafting in the diplomatic wind.
Palestinian and Israeli emissaries, political as well as security, are talking to each other almost daily. Ariel Sharon and senior ministers now see an Egyptian-Jordanian peace plan, which they rejected out of hand barely a week earlier, as a basis for talks about talks, if not yet for resuming negotiations. So, apparently, does Arafat, who helped to draft it in the first place.
His Palestinian Authority is also floating a trade-off around Jericho. The casino, shelled by Israel in the early months of the intifada last fall, would reopen. Israel would allow its roulette-starved gamblers to pour their shekels once again into the Palestinian exchequer (and a few back pockets). In return, Arafat would guarantee security for Israeli settlers and drivers in the Jordan Valley.
On the military side, the Palestinian leader grudgingly condemned attacks on civilians, "Israeli and Palestinian," after Monday's Or Yehuda car bombing. Earlier Arafat claimed to have arrested Hamas gunmen who fired mortars on Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and across the border in the Negev desert. He ordered their comrades to stop the shelling.
Israel remained skeptical. "The test," said Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, "is what happens on the ground. Words have to be followed by deeds." Perhaps it was all window-dressing, but the fact is there was a lull in the mortar firing.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are playing to an international, primarily an American, gallery. They want to appear moderate and flexible. They don't relish being blamed for escalation that could drag the region, however reluctantly, into war.
The Bush Administration is no longer sitting on the sidelines. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said openly that Uncle Sam is involved, that Washington has a stake in stability. It is no coincidence that the renewed security talks have been taking place at the Herzliya residence of United States Ambassador Martin Indyk and that the CIA is at the table.
After so many other initiatives have failed to halt the mayhem, the Egyptian-Jordanian plan is the only game in town. The Americans, Europeans and U.N. are pressing it on the parties.
King Abdullah assured Israel this week that it was not a dictated solution. It could, he said, be changed through dialogue. The young monarch has his own reasons for persevering. "A continuation of the escalation," he confided, "could cause the wave of violence to wash over Jordan as well."
Although they continued to insist that Israel will not negotiate under fire, sources in Sharon's bureau responded, "From the moment the Jordanians said changes could be made, we said this is definitely something we can talk about." Sharon is reported to have told the visiting Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, "The initiative is important, but the formula is not good enough for us. It needs some changes."
The main points are: a cease-fire combined with an easing of the Israeli blockade on Palestinian communities; confidence building measures, including a freeze on settlement expansion; a renewal of security cooperation; and a resumption of negotiations for a final peace deal.
Sharon is hardly likely to swallow a settlement freeze, which he could not sell to his right-wing constituency. Nor does he believe a definitive peace agreement is attainable. He is still looking to a "long-term interim agreement." Nonetheless, diplomats have been asked to prepare a detailed Israeli response for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to take with him on a scheduled visit to Washington next week.
Yet as Peres acknowledged during a trip to Cyprus this week, the psychological divide is deepening. Even dovish Israelis are ready to back harsh retaliation if Palestinian attacks persist. On the other side of the barricades, a new poll found 80.2 percent of Palestinians supporting a continuation of the intifada, a 10 percent increase since December. More than 62 percent supported "armed" as well as "popular" struggle, an 8 percent rise.
So far, then, there are only straws wafting in the wind. But watch this space.
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