With Peace Deal Stuck, Arafat Tries a Strike and a Pilgrimage

The underlying message from events in Israel this week may be that when you take the "process" out of a "peace process," sooner or later, the "peace" goes, too.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu have yet to meet - three months after Mr. Netanyahu was elected Israeli prime minister. And now it appears relations between Palestinians and the Israeli government have sunk to their lowest point since the two peoples reached an interim peace deal almost three years ago.

In the first sign that talking may be beginning at last, yesterday Dan Shomron, the head of Israel's negotiating team, and Saeb Erekat, his Palestinian counterpart, met and agreed to resume regular contacts next week. "Our role as a steering committee is to solve problems and continue the peace process and do this in a good spirit," Mr. Shomron said.

Mr. Erekat said that Mr. Arafat sees "peace sliding through our hands like sand" unless progress is forthcoming. Despite yesterday's promise to resume talks, he defended Arafat's call for Palestinians to travel to Jerusalem today to pray at a mosque. Palestinians have been encouraged to go to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for Friday prayers, regardless of whether they have permits to enter the city. Checkpoints that restrict travel between the territories and Israel proper could become a flashpoint for tensions, highlighting the partial closure that Palestinians decry as an economic hardship.

Several recent actions by the Israeli government have provoked condemnation from the Palestinian Legislative Council, including Israel's uncompromising approach to Arab claims on East Jerusalem and its decision to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Arafat said these moves were a "declaration of war" on Palestinians. At his request, Palestinians yesterday went on a half-day strike throughout the West Bank, evoking memories of the intifada, the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising against Israel. The strike call could be read as a symbolic message that a return to violent struggle is an option if diplomacy does not bear fruit for Palestinian independence.

Recently, Israeli construction crews have swung events into motion, first by delivering new prefab homes to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and then by wrecking a Palestinian building in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Municipal officials said the building, which was to become a youth center, did not have proper permits.

That ignited Palestinian charges that Netanyahu was demolishing the peace process itself. Arafat, frustrated with the delay in an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron, had even agreed to close a few of his East Jerusalem offices in exchange for progress.

"ARAFAT tried very hard to keep a door open ... to Netanyahu, and then he tried to pressure Netanyahu through Egypt and the United States and whoever would listen," says Ali Jarbawi, an expert on Palestinian politics at Bir Zeit University. "The point is not the Palestinian leadership is reacting now. The point is why did it take so long...?"

Just what Netanyahu may have in mind is not yet clear. Israel's youngest premier is reportedly being pulled rightward by hawkish forces in his party and his cabinet. He is trying to balance pressure from those ministers who don't, for example, want any redeployment from Hebron, with pressures from Palestinians and abroad.

It is a precarious balancing act, however, that has led to indecision on major matters and what Palestinians view as provocations on smaller matters. That is a potentially dangerous situation for which Netanyahu may not have a solution.

Leaders of the ruling Likud party "still haven't made up their minds how they view ... the PA and the Oslo [peace] agreement," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "They still haven't got any coherent alternative idea. And there are strong voices in the Likud who are not willing to deal with Arafat as partner, but still view him as the enemy."

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