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Swallowing Hard, Sharon Mulls A New Palestinian Cease-Fire

JERUSALEM — Faced with growing internal discontent and increasing international criticism of his policies, Prime Minister Sharon is reluctantly moving ahead with efforts to achieve a new Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and revive the moribund peace process.

Sharon is expected to meet within the next few days with the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, to discuss a new cease-fire that was being brokered this week by Egypt’s military intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman. Simultaneously, the Palestinian Authority was to launch talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad aimed at achieving another internal Palestinian cease-fire, or hudna. Most analysts expect a cease-fire to be concluded in the near future, despite anger over this week’s terrorist attack in the West Bank in which two Israeli soldiers were killed.

The emerging cease-fire deal, in which Israel would drop longstanding demands for dismantling of terrorist “infrastructures” and quarantining of Yasser Arafat, is the clearest sign yet of the pressure Sharon is feeling from critics in the Bush administration and within his own security establishment.

Seeking to reclaim the initiative, the prime minister’s bureau leaked reports to the Israeli media this week about an upcoming new Israeli peace plan to jump-start the diplomatic process. According to the reports, not yet confirmed by Sharon himself, the prime minister has asked aides to draw up plans calling for, among other things, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

The flurry of contacts comes in the wake of several months of diplomatic standstill following the collapse in late August of the previous Palestinian government, led by Mahmoud Abbas. Since then Sharon has come under steadily mounting criticism from all sides for failing to extricate the country from a deepening social, economic and political morass.

This month’s municipal elections, in which the Likud lost control of more than a dozen municipalities, was interpreted in the Prime Minister’s Office as a political warning sign to the Likud over declining public support. Sharon and his party have also been feeling intense heat from a batch of extra-governmental diplomatic initiatives gaining steady prominence in Israel and around the world, accentuating what is widely seen as a vacuum in government diplomacy.

One initiative, a declaration of principles drafted by former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh calling for a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, has been gaining high-level support in Washington and other capitals. A second, similar document, the so-called Geneva Understandings recently concluded between Israeli leftist leader Yossi Beilin and a group of Palestinian officials, was distributed this week by special delivery to nearly 2 million Israeli households. The Geneva document is expected to remain in the spotlight for at least the next month, as its sponsors prepare for a symbolic signing ceremony tentatively set for December 1 in Geneva.

A third initiative in the works, this one from Shinui, a partner in Sharon’s ruling coalition, is expected to call for the unilateral removal of the most controversial settlement in Gaza, Netzarim.

Perhaps most embarrassing to Sharon was an unprecedented interview with four former heads of the Shin Bet, published on November 14 in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot (see excerpt above). The headline of the round-table discussion, published in Yediot’s popular Friday supplement, read, “We are on the way to a catastrophe.” The four — Ayalon, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Avraham Shalom — issued a scathing indictment of the government’s policies toward the Palestinians, claiming that without an early political settlement with the Palestinians, probably including mass evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories, Israel is doomed to lose either its Jewish or its democratic character, or both.

The four men headed security service for all but two of the 20 years between 1980 and 2000. They said their views are widely shared within the current security establishment.

Coming on the heels of the criticism leveled against the government several weeks ago by the military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, the comments of the Shin Bet quartet rocked the Israeli political establishment and made headlines worldwide. The fact that the controversial interview was given such prominence in a mainstream newspaper such as Yediot, Israel’s largest, was widely interpreted as a clear indication that the public as a whole was losing patience with Sharon’s policies.

According to recent diplomatic reports received in Jerusalem, Sharon’s credit is dwindling in Washington as well. Although Sharon continues to enjoy lavish support from President Bush in public pronouncements, Israeli diplomats are warning Jerusalem of a growing unease in the Bush administration with many of Sharon’s policies. Especially contentious is the government’s failure to remove so-called “unauthorized outposts,” its ongoing strengthening and expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories and, perhaps most damaging, the continued construction of the so-called separation fence deep inside the West Bank, in blatant disregard of American protests. American diplomatic officials recently told the Forward that in addition to existing disagreements over the routing of the fence around the West Bank Jewish town of Ariel and East Jerusalem, the two countries are now at new loggerheads over the fence’s southern portion. Recent disclosures indicate that Israel has reneged on a promise to build the southern leg along the 1967 border and is planning instead to carve out sizeable chunks of West Bank territory.

Public clamor for change appears undiminished by the dramatic spike in signs of international antisemitism, especially in Europe. The most deadly case so far was the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist attack in Istanbul last weekend, in which 24 people were killed in simultaneous car-bombings of two synagogues.

Israel’s sense of besiegement was magnified still further this week by the unusually public warning from the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, against the “existential danger” posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite these threats, or because of them, the government is feeling mounting pressure, officials admit, to try and resolve the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. In addition to the security threat, Israel’s economic health is seen as closely linked to the regional dispute. Although Israeli economists were heartened by the hefty 2.7% growth rate in the third quarter announced this week, most Israelis are skeptical that the government can improve the economic situation without addressing the instability on the security front by easing tensions with the Palestinians.

Therefore, despite Sharon’s personal skepticism about Qurei’s chances of success, Israel has effectively dropped many of its previous preconditions for a new cease-fire. Qurei, described until recently as a stooge of Arafat and not worth dealing with, is now depicted in political and military circles as the last hope for achieving an extended calm. The current consensus in senior government echelons is that Israel should “do all it can,” in one official’s words, to assist Qurei, even though Arafat has retained most security authority in his own hands, contrary to Israel’s vehement demands.

In addition, Sharon has now agreed to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that will complement the internal Palestinian agreements. The deal reportedly will include an Israeli pledge not to conduct military actions against the Palestinians so long as the cease-fire is in place. This is in contrast to the previous internal Palestinian hudna, to which Israel insisted it was not a party. Similarly, Israel has loosened its definition of “dismantling terrorist infrastructures” to exclude, at least for now, the demand for all-out confrontation between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations. In clandestine contacts between Israeli officers and Palestinian security chiefs, Israel has demanded that the P.A. take steps to consolidate its overall control and to prevent the terrorist groups from exploiting the cease-fire to rearm and reorganize. The actual “dismantling,” the officers have hinted, can wait for better times.

Sharon’s critics continue to accuse him of posturing. They claim he is merely seeking to appease Washington and domestic public opinion, and has no real intention of engaging Qurei’s government or moving the peace process forward. Sharon’s gambit, the critics say, is based on his gut belief that no positive change is possible as long as Arafat is around.

Israeli supporters of Qurei believe the new Palestinian prime minister is far better equipped than his predecessor to handle both Arafat and Sharon at the same time, however. They expect Qurei’s government to clamp down convincingly on terrorism, something that would put Sharon in a diplomatic bind by forcing him to show his cards and spell out the “painful concessions” that he has declared himself willing to make. The public, exasperated and increasingly desperate, appears willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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