Even as Israeli troops mounted their largest raid on Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip since the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier, there was continued talk about a prisoner exchange that could be linked to the jump starting of regional peace talks.
"There is a lot of talk of a Bush administration initiative that might be linked to the Saudi peace plan of 2002" observed Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "We have heard statements from [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz and [Acting Justice Minister Meir] Sheetrit welcoming that kind of involvement, and we have to have something to hold onto."
Sheetrit was quoted last month as saying Israel "should take the bull by the horns" and accept the Saudi initiative, which calls for Israel to return to its 1967 borders (including the relinquishing of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) and a negotiated right of return for Palestinians.
And on Tuesday, Peretz said although he disagreed with some of the plan’s provisions, it "could serve as a basis for negotiations." He added that the absence of a peace process was "not in the interests of Israel, which should take the initiative in re-launching one."
Yossi Alpher, a Middle East analyst and coeditor of the Israeli-Palestinian Website bitterlemons.org, said that although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "does not appear to have an agenda regarding the Palestinians or Syria, you want to imagine that there is some secret plan brewing that we donít know about."
David Kimche, a member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum and a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said he believes a peace initiative towards Syria should be launched by Israel and the United States. He said the same approach that won over Libyan strongman Mohammar Khadafy should be explored with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"It can only be pursued if the Syrians do their part," he said.
That means, Kimche explained, that Assad should be told the U.S. is ready to take certain steps, including removing Syria from its list of terrorist states, if it takes such acts as expelling Hamas leader Kalid Meshal.
But Kimche noted that so far the U.S. has refused to speak with Assad. And there were reports from the United Nations this week that arms smuggling has resumed across the Syrian border into Lebanon, which is not allowed by UN Resolution 1701, the agreement reached at the end of this summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. The UN said it had no information on the types or quantity of the weapons.
Wednesday’s Israeli attack in the northern Gaza Strip near Beit Hanoum claimed the lives of at least six Palestinians and one Israeli soldier. A Hamas spokesman was quoted as saying that the Israeli action would have a "negative influence" on talks aimed at winning the release of the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a prisoner swap. Egypt has been trying for weeks to broker such a deal and convened a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday with Hamas representatives. Talks using a United Nations envoy as a mediator were also underway for another prisoner swap to win the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah terrorists in a cross-border raid July 12, according to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Steinberg pointed out that since the three soldiers’ abductions, there have been similar reports of negotiations that have failed to materialize. But he said in light of talk about a regional peace initiative, what may emerge is a "package deal that would include the prisoner release and a jump start to [peace] talks. So this might not be just a deal for the soldiers. … This is what is being discussed, but it may not go anywhere."
Israeli forces were reported to have faced stiff resistance from Palestinian terrorists in Wednesday’s incursion. Alpher noted that "senior military officers have been warning almost daily about the Hamas [military] buildup. They have spoken of reinforced concrete fortifications, the smuggling of anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft missiles and rockets to be fired into Israel. And as we have made deeper penetrations, we have uncovered tunnels" used for smuggling in weapons from Egypt.
Kimche noted that there are "some hawks in the army who want to push in strongly [into Gaza], but our defense minister is holding back. It is still an open question of whether there will be a massive military operation."
Despite the military action, talk of a regional peace initiative may ripen after Olmert’s meeting in two weeks with President George W. Bush in Washington. Alpher pointed out that James Baker, Bush’s special emissary to Iraq, is expected to soon recommend American action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kimche said also that some moderate Arabs have been proposing that the Bush Administration formulate final borders for a two-state solution to the conflict that would be ratified by the United Nations Security Council. But Alpher dismissed the idea as "unrealistic," saying in his column that Bush’s power is weakening and that he is more likely to devote his energy to Iraq and Iran.
That proposal is not gaining as much traction at the Saudi peace initiative, according to Alpher.
The problem with that plan, though, is the "Arabs treat it as if the idea is for the U.S. and the Security Council to compel Israel to accept it, rather than something that is put on the table" to talk about, Alpher said. "This automatically causes [Israel] to reject it," he said, adding that Israel would never accept an imposed solution.