TEL AVIV — In a slowly unfolding scenario reminiscent of the nearly forgotten peace process of the early 1990s, Israelis and Palestinians began feeling their way cautiously toward agreement this week on something resembling coexistence.
Armed Palestinian police moved into position, with Israeli consent, to stop terrorists from firing rockets at Israeli targets — first in northern Gaza and then, in midweek, in southern Gaza. Meanwhile, senior officers from both sides met to discuss Israel handing over control of territory to the Palestinian Authority and coordinating future actions. Rocket and mortar fire ceased abruptly, and Israelis enjoyed their longest period without major attacks since the summer of 2003.
The shift was so sudden that many on both sides were reluctant to believe it, fearing — or, for some, hoping — that it might collapse in a hail of gunfire. P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, often described in private by senior Israelis as a “featherless chick” because of his presumed weakness, appeared to have caught everyone by surprise, himself included. Early this week, Abbas reached an apparent agreement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad to halt attacks on Israelis, and by midweek he was preparing for a signing ceremony in Cairo. Expected participants included not only Hamas leaders from Gaza, but also heads of the group’s exile wing, who previously have opposed all efforts at cease-fire.
Israel, which only last week seemed on the verge of launching a major incursion in Gaza following a series of lethal attacks, did its part by doing little. Military efforts were restricted to foiling immediate threats of new attacks. There were no assassination attempts and no major military movements. The commander of Israel’s Gaza brigade, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, who had been expected just a week ago to be leading a major operation this week against Palestinian forces, was instead meeting cordially with the P.A.’s Gaza security chief, Musa Arafat.
Still, everyone was aware of the calm’s fragility. Hamas made its acceptance of a cease-fire conditional on Israel openly agreeing to end assassinations and to release prisoners, an unlikely prospect. Skepticism remained strong on the Israeli side, as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Likud leaders insisted that Israel should not offer anything in return for Palestinian quiet.
According to press reports, even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was impatient at times with Israel’s restraint. In the wake of the deadly attacks on Sderot and the Karni border crossing earlier this month, Sharon reportedly was pressing last week for a full-scale bombardment of Palestinian villages, and was held back only by strong objections from the military command. The army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya’alon, was said to have prevailed on Sharon to give Abbas time to move against the extremists.
Some Jerusalem insiders pooh-poohed the press accounts, saying they were aimed at making Sharon appear tough on terrorists without actually taking actions that could overturn the quiet. True or not, the publication of the reports reflected the mix of satisfaction and surprise in Israel at Abbas’s unpredicted success.
If Gaza remains quiet, senior sources said midweek, Israel will offer to expand Abbas’s authority, granting him security control over any West Bank town he chooses. It might be Ramallah, the seat of most P.A. governing bodies, or any other city: The choice would be his.
In Washington, administration sources said Israeli officials told them that the withdrawal would be more extensive than planned, including a handover of Gaza ports and border controls, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. They also said a second-phase withdrawal was being envisioned, which would include the Jordan Valley, reflecting the removal of the Iraqi threat on Israel’s eastern front as well as Bush administration insistence on a “contiguous” Palestinian state with access to Jordan.
Not all was rosy. Palestinians complained this week that Israel was undermining the peace process by resuming construction on its West Bank separation fence. There was also a sharp Palestinian reaction to Israel’s quiet decision, reported last week in Ha’aretz, to confiscate East Jerusalem properties belonging to West Bank Arabs, as part of Israel’s policy of unifying Jerusalem under its own sovereignty.
Still, the overall Israeli stance toward Abbas represented a sharp reversal from its attitude toward him when he was prime minister, and Ya’alon — among others — accused the Sharon government of hastening his downfall. This time, it seemed, nobody wanted to appear responsible should it all collapse. Israeli opposition voices seemed hushed, sensing that there was little political gain in undermining the evolving détente.
Reflecting the uncertainty on the right, one of the most staunchly pro-settler political parties, the National Religious Party, veered close to a schism this week. The party’s chairman, Effi Eitam, negotiated a merger with the far-right National Union, sparking furious objections from the party’s moderate wing. Eitam eventually crossed the aisle with a single supporter, leaving the venerable religious party as a three-member rump group under chairman Zevulun Orlev.
In a further blow to the right, the army announced this week that it was disbanding its decades-old Hesder Yeshiva units, all-Orthodox units that mix military service with religious studies. The decision, apparently aimed at breaking up centers of anti-disengagement sentiment in the ranks, sparked furious protests from religious politicians, but they were helpless to act.
In a further reminder of bygone days, the American assistant secretary of state William Burns, arrived in the region for talks, fresh from a meeting in Frankfurt of the so-called Middle East Quartet — America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Commenting on the Burns visit, a senior Palestinian source was quoted on Israeli television as saying: “This is it. The Intifada is over.”
Most Israelis and Palestinians were still too raw from the events of the past 52 months to believe that, but no one wanted to be the one blamed for bursting the bubble of hope.