The first high-level Israeli-Palestinian talks were held this week amid reports that Palestinian leaders have now agreed that President Yasir Arafat must go before any meaningful peace talks are to start.
At the same time, the Israeli government’s decision to deny Israeli Arabs the right to buy land in primarily rural communities of the country has triggered a debate about how best to preserve the Jewish character of the state.
And tensions in Israel had eased by midweek after nearly three weeks without any major terrorist incidents. The end to a spate of terrorist attacks, in which 64 Israelis were killed in 16 days last month, came after Israeli troops moved into seven of eight major Palestinian cities and imposed strict curfews.
Isolated terrorist incidents have occurred since then, but the number of alerts regarding possible attacks reportedly has dropped from eight or nine a day to two or three. And there have been daily reports of foiled terrorist attacks.
"Right now it’s very quiet, terror is under control," said Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion. "It was always said that there is no military solution [to the violence], but every time the army takes control, there is a military solution. It’s not for the long term, but itís better than it was before."
Palestinian leaders now believe, according to reports this week, that suicide bombings have backfired in their effort to bring about Israeli concessions, generating worldwide condemnation and hardening Israeli resolve.
Many of the leaders signed a newspaper ad that advocated an end to suicide bombings on the grounds that they were only hurting the Palestinian cause. Among the signees was Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University, who is widely regarded as a Palestinian moderate. But this week, Israeli police ordered his university office in East Jerusalem closed on the grounds that he was serving as an agent of Arafatís Palestinian Authority, thus compromising Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, a Jordanian magazine reported last weekend that Arafat is expected to step aside soon as a result of an agreement with Israel, the United States and unnamed Palestinian and Arab parties. The publication, Al-Majd, which is said to have close ties to Syria, reported that the president of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmad Qurai, also known as Abu Ala, would most likely succeed Arafat.
The magazine said Arafat agreed to step down after being briefed on American and Israeli demands that he be replaced before any meaningful peace talks could begin and before a Palestinian state could be created.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said those around Arafat are devoting much of their time to selecting his successor. It said Israeli intelligence officers believe that Palestinians understand that "Arafatís fate has been sealed."
One Palestinian leader, Abas Zaki, a Fatah leader in Hebron, said unequivocally this week that "Arafat must go."
But Goldstein, the Israeli mayor, said that no matter who replaces Arafat, things are unlikely to change.
"The way everybody is talking, one would think that the day after Arafat goes there will be white birds in the sky and everybody will kiss each other," he said. "That is foolish. Arafat incited a whole generation against Israel, so there are now more than 2 million Arafats. I don’t expect this next generation to coexist or to sign a peace treaty."
As political maneuvering occurred in the Palestinian leadership, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with the new Palestinian finance and interior ministers, but little was reportedly accomplished. Among the topics discussed was a Palestinian request to release the $500 million in Palestinian taxes Israel has collected but refused to turn over to the Palestinian Authority for fear it would be used to finance terrorist attacks.
The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that Israel agreed to release the funds but is trying to figure out how to get the money to the Palestinian people without going through the PA.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, cautioned that Arafat has a way of bouncing back and that it would be premature to write him off.
"Until he’s gone, he is pulling as many strings as possible," he said. "Some argue that all of the [Palestinian] reform activity is just a slight of hand and that Arafat is just moving a few chairs around. … He’s responding to the pressure, but we’re still at the early part of the process."
Some unnamed military sources have been quoted as saying that Israeli troops would remain in the seven Palestinian cities for as long as a year or until the fence Israel is erecting around its 1967 border is erected. But Steinberg said he expected a troop withdrawal to begin after the holiday of Sukkot this fall. In the meantime, he said, Israel is "trying to ease up at night to re-establish normal social and economic life."
Against this backdrop came the Israeli governmentís decision designed to circumvent a March 2000 decision of Israelís High Court of Justice to allow the Palestinian family of Iman and Adel Kaadan to live in the all-Jewish Israeli town of Katzir. The court said the countryís Declaration of Independence prohibited discrimination based upon race, religion or gender.
Chaim Druckman, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party, has introduced legislation to amend the Israel Lands Law to permit the earmarking of land for the Jewish Agency that would be developed exclusively by Jews. Now that the Israeli government has endorsed the bill, it faces three readings in the Knesset before it can become law. The measure is expected to generate intense debate.
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said the bill could "contribute to the further unraveling of the delicate threads bridging the rift between Jews and Arabs."
Haaretz said in an editorial that the land would be reserved for Jews only if the defense minister declared it "desirable for security reasons" or if ministers responsible for implementing the law declared it was "necessary to preserve the characters of towns based on a uniform ideological or communal life style that requires the residents’ cooperation."
But the paper said those "tortuous formulations" do not "conceal the fact that its primary purpose is to prevent non-Jewish citizens of the state from living in certain places, in violation of fundamental civil rights."
"The bill, if enacted, would constitute a blatant declaration of the effective collapse of Israeli democracy," Haaretz said.
Dan Meridor, a minister in the political center, said that if passed the measure would be seen by Israel’s enemies as proof of the United Nations canard that Zionism equals racism.
Peres said his Labor Party would "fight with all its power against the racist declaration."
Professor Menachem Harnung of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said that in the end, he does not believe the bill will be adopted.
"Labor is not going to vote for it, and [Sharonís] Likud Party will be afraid to vote for it because everyone seeking the Arab vote is not going to vote for such a bill," he said. "For Likud it is enough for them to convince their Jewish voters that they were on the right side when they brought it before the government. They can blame the left for its failure to pass."
But Professor Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University said he believes a compromise bill will be adopted that would allow for the creation of all-Jewish communities as well as all-Arab communities, thereby undermining the racism claim and still ensuring Israelís Jewish character.
"In this way they can appear as democratic and take care of everybody, giving land to whoever needs it," said Kedar.
He did not expect the Knesset to act on the issue, however, before the summer recess in order to hear different ideas and to carefully prepare the compromise wording.
"It should be dealt with carefully so that it is something everyone can accept," he said.