A surprise pact offers some hope

Egypt declared a negotiated 'cease-fire' between Israelis and Palestinians yesterday.

After seven months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, a glimmer of hope emerged yesterday from the normally dreary and tortuous maneuverings of Middle East diplomacy.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signaled that an initiative to end the bloodletting is showing promise.

Mr. Mubarak yesterday announced a surprising "cease-fire" agreement. Mr. Peres, while optimistic, didn't confirm a deal.

But Peres did pledge that immediate steps would be taken to ease restrictions on the travel of Palestinians. And Yasser Arafat ordered a branch of his Fatah organization to disband in an attempt to stop mortar attacks on Jewish settlements.

Analysts say it's premature to call the initiative, formulated by Jordan and Egypt, a success. The region has a long history of shredding agreements before the ink dries. And this effort is still in its early stages, with many unanswered questions.

For example, it wasn't clear how, if at all, the Egyptians and Jordanians would manage to bridge a gulf between Israel and the Palestinians over the future of Jewish settlements and the frame of reference for talks on a future peace deal.

Mubarak emerged from talks with Peres, who visited Cairo and Amman yesterday, declaring that the two had "agreed" to a cease-fire. But, upon reflection, the announcement appeared to reflect Cairo's desire for deescalation more than the sealing of an enduring breakthrough.

"After a cease-fire of four weeks," said Mubarak, "negotiations between the two sides will start, to reach a solution to the current situation."

That formulation would appear to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence on a halt to violence, which he blames on the Palestinians, before talks start. But it did not answer the question of what Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would receive if he halts the uprising, and how he could explain to his own people his readiness to do so.

It did not take long for the expectations raised by the cease-fire statement to be dampened with a more circumspect assessment from Mubarak's foreign minister, Amr Moussa. Asked whether a cease-fire had been reached, he said: "No, the two sides are still talking about the matter."

Still, Peres also took pains to signal hope for a breakthrough. "There are still issues we have to clarify, and I don't want to claim that everything is okay and everything is agreed. But I can say that an agreement on how to handle the situation was really achieved."

The Palestinian reaction to the news, however, signaled that the initiative still means different things to the different sides.

The Palestinians are counting on complete adherence to the initiative's call for an Israeli freeze on construction at Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before a cease-fire, and negotiations on a final peace deal to pick up where talks with the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had left off. Mr. Barak was reportedly willing to cede 95 percent of the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, while Mr. Sharon has said he will only accept a prolonged non-belligerency agreement giving the Palestinian 42 percent of the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday that Israel should not be able to make changes in the initiative. "They should take it or leave it." However, Israel's entire strategy toward the diplomacy is to refrain from saying no to the initiative while introducing far-reaching changes into it, says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of The Jerusalem Report weekly magazine. For example, its interpretation of a settlement freeze is that it would refrain from building new settlements while continuing what it calls "natural growth" of existing ones, a phrase it has interpreted very broadly in the past.

"Sharon has been under tremendous international pressure from his coalition partners on the left, like Peres, not to reject the initiative out of hand. Peres has argued that if Israel rejects the initiative out of hand it will look like an obstructionist and be blamed," Susser says.

But, Susser adds: "There is no way this government will accept a total settlement freeze."

"I think Sharon has recognized that there cannot be a cessation of violence and Israel's behavior being accepted internationally without a political process. He wants reengagement with the Palestinians, but with an Israeli victory in his hands: This means a total cessation of violence" Susser says.

But this victory is something Arafat cannot afford to give Sharon without receiving something in exchange, namely the settlement freeze and agreement to pick up where the talks with Barak left off, according to Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "I give all of this very little chance of succeeding," he says.

"Even if Arafat agrees [to cease-fire], others won't.... The question is where to start, by going back to negotiations or by ceasing attacks on each other. Ceasing attacks is Sharon's demand. If Arafat agrees, he has been defeated by Sharon."

Formally, Arafat might endorse a cease-fire due to pressure from Jordan, Egypt, and the United States, Mr. Jarbawi says. "But during the night you will find Palestinians firing. He might play things that way because he did not achieve anything tangible on the negotiating track."

In fact, acting on directions from Arafat, the high council for Palestinian national security over the weekend asked an armed branch of Arafat's Fatah movement to disband, after the group claimed responsibility for firing mortar bombs at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. But the group yesterday vowed to fight on as attacks continued, killing one suspected bomber.

Peres is due in Washington today to hold talks with US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and possibly President George W. Bush.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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