As Israel paused this week to remember its 19,312 war dead and to celebrate 53 years of independence, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was dispatched to Egypt to present Israel’s response to its proposal to end seven months of violence.
Just how successful that effort will be is anybody’s guess.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) upon her return to Washington following a five-day tour of Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
Lowey said she found both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “very concerned about the impact of the continued violence on the part of the Palestinians. There clearly was a sense of urgency from them to get the parties together.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to take a second look at the proposal, after first dismissing it as a “non-starter,” because he has to “show a willingness” for talks.
“It’s only a question of who is going to win and lose points in terms of image,” he said. “Peres has to sound out the Egyptians and the Jordanians to show goodwill for media image. But I don’t see any substantial progress going on. I hope I’m wrong, but the evidence does not point in that direction.”
The Egyptian-Jordanian plan, said to have been first formulated by Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, reportedly calls for the Palestinians and Israelis to take steps to rebuild confidence. They would include a halt to Israeli settlement expansion, a lifting of its blockade of Palestinian territories, a pullback of troops to positions before the outbreak of violence Sept. 28, and the implementation of an earlier agreement to hand over another 3 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.
Lowey, the ranking member of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said she and the six other members of the House Appropriations Committee who met with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat had only one message for him: “Stop the violence now.”
Another member of the delegation, Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), said Mubarak “expressed a lot of frustration with both Sharon and Arafat, and indicated that he thinks Arafat missed an incredible opportunity at Camp David. But his relationship with Sharon is not good at all.”
Mubarak is placing great interest in the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, Cardin said, because he views it as important to his country’s interests.
“The Egyptian economy is very dependent on peace in the Middle East; so is Jordan’s,” Cardin said. “Both leaders were very strong about sticking with the peace effort.”
The Bush administration is studying the proposal but has not endorsed it. Peres is to fly to Washington next week to discuss the plan with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials. Powell in a PBS interview this week expressed hope that the violence might soon end as a result of security cooperation talks hosted by Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“There’s a little bit of traction now starting to take place as people see that we can’t keep doing what we have seen being done in recent weeks,” he said, referring to the loss of nearly 490 lives in seven months.
Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Sharon, indicated that the security talks were more promising than the Egyptian-Jordanian plan. The talks are aimed at bringing the violence to an end. A fruitful meeting Monday by senior Israeli and Palestinian security officials was to be followed by another Friday with a meeting of field commanders to implement security coordination.
As violence is reduced, said Gold, Israel would move to “relieve the economic burden” on the Palestinians. Among such steps might be allowing more Palestinians to work in Israel and easing restrictions on imported goods. But he stressed there would be “no substantial negotiations until the violence ends.”
Asked about the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal, Gold pointed out that it was now in its fourth draft.
“It’s important to be diplomatically active and Israel understands that both Egypt and Jordan have in the past played a constructive role in the negotiations,” he said. “But this should not distract us from the main point, which is Israel’s uncompromising position that the violence must be terminated totally — not in one sector alone or with respect to mortars.”
In his meeting with the congressional delegation, Cardin said Sharon expressed interest in “working with” the initiative but said he had strong reservations with two provisions — that Israel halt all expansion of settlements and begin final-status talks within a year after the violence ends.
“He thinks it would be a real mistake to get locked into a rigid timetable,” said Cardin.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Sharon revealed that Israel has been conducting high-level talks with the Palestinians dealing with economic issues. He said they talked about joint use of Israel’s planned water desalination plant, agreed upon improved water supply to Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and discussed a Gaza-Tulkarm train line.
Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, said this demonstrated that although “technically they are telling the story that as long as there is violence there will be no negotiations, there are negotiations all the time through all sorts of channels. Even Sharon understands that you cannot stop the violence without talking.”
She recalled that during the prime ministerial campaign earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was chided repeatedly by the opposition with the slogan, “Let Tzhal [the Israel Defense Forces] win.”
That there have been secret talks, Avital said, proves “you can’t say the army has all the answers. On the one hand, you need to respond, but if you overdo it, you get dragged into what they wanted — to provoke you. And there is always a danger that this conflict may spread to the larger region.”
In the end, Avital said, she believes Barak and his approach of trying to negotiate a final-status agreement with the Palestinians “will be vindicated, but it will take time.”
On the other hand, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said he believes time will prove that the “tragedy of Barak was that he did not understand” that political negotiations will be hopeless “unless they are backed up by a military option. When he gave in, the [Palestinian] violence increased.
“We are eager to get back to negotiations, but we can’t unless the Palestinians understand that they must stop the violence,” Shoval said. “Mr. Arafat has to do it.”
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, believes a hard-line approach is needed. He argued in a column in the Jerusalem Post that the left “wants Israel to revert to the discredited policy of niceness. If a mistake is worth making once, the left seems to think it is worth making again and again.
“If Israel truly wants to end its problem with the Palestinians, it must … convince Palestinians not of its niceness but its toughness. This means … punishing violence so hard that its enemies will eventually feel so deep a sense of futility that they will despair of further conflict.”
The revelation of these secret talks — and even agreements — with the Palestinians, Sharon insisted, should not be viewed as negotiations but rather as part of the effort to halt the violence.
But Phil Reeves, writing in the on-line version of the British Independent News & Media, said Sharon is sending mixed signals. In fact, he said, he is beginning to imitate Barak, whose indecision earned him the nickname “Mr. Zig-Zag.”
By reconsidering the Egyptian-Jordanian plan and abruptly pulling back troops last week from Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip, “whispers have begun to suggest that Mr. Sharon is showing symptoms of the same affliction,” Reeves wrote.
There has been no reduction in violence, Reeves noted, pointing out that at the start of the week three bombs exploded inside Israel in just over 24 hours, including a suicide bomber in Kfar Saba who killed a prominent rehabilitation specialist, Dr. Mario Goldin, 53, as he was heading to work at the Beit Levinstein Medical Center in neighboring Ra’anana. More than 50 others were injured.
D.C. correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.