Peace process awaits US nudge

r Arafat and Peres agreed yesterday to cooperate on security and lift some restrictions on Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres have taken a first step, but whether it leads anywhere is up to the United States.

That was the sense after the Palestinian leader and the Israeli foreign minister yesterday decided to restart security cooperation and lift Israeli strictures on Palestinian travel between towns in the occupied territories.

They also agreed during a meeting in the Gaza Strip to implement recommendations by the US-led Mitchell Commission. These stipulate a total effort by the Palestinians to prevent terrorism and Israeli steps culminating in a freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another meeting is due to take place in about a week, the leaders decided.

Israeli and Palestinian cease-fires have come and gone, but their confrontation has proven stronger, continuing now for a year. This time, however, a new variable might contribute to a more enduring calm.

The Bush administration's involvement is seen as crucial in pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to allow further conciliatory steps by his relatively dovish foreign minister and in ensuring that Mr. Arafat meets Israeli security concerns.

"This meeting is a start that could lead somewhere," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report magazine. "But that will depend on how much the US and international community is willing to invest in the process .... Things have changed since Sept. 11. I think Sharon realizes the world's patience for the [Middle East] being a source of terrorism is very limited, and Arafat realizes the world has no patience for Palestinian terror. Both of them have had to rethink their strategies."

The session's very convening appears to be a major achievement, given the fact it was twice thwarted by Sharon, who said that the Palestinians had not met his condition that there be 48 hours of complete quiet before a meeting.

Just before the session yesterday, Palestinians set off an explosion at an Israeli outpost in the Gaza Strip, wounding three soldiers, according to the Israeli army. Later, Palestinian teenagers threw stones at the outpost, and soldiers responded with tear gas and live rounds, killing a 14-year old boy and wounding 11 other youngsters.

Sharon, pushed by Washington in recent days, decided to allow the meeting to go ahead, something that exposed him to media criticism that he had broken a vow not to "negotiate under fire."

But the key questions remain: Will the Israeli premier allow the de-escalation process to develop, or is this a one-off move to placate the US?

His adamant belief that the West Bank - or Judea and Samaria - is part of Israel's historic patrimony, as well as his predilection for using military pressure to crush the Palestinian Authority, are unlikely to translate into support for a process that, if successful, will lead to a freeze on Jewish settlement activity and Israeli territorial concessions. And he would like to see Arafat isolated, not accorded greater international respectability. Moreover, Sharon is facing heavy political pressure from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose positions are even more extreme than those of the Israeli leader. Mr. Netanyahu has openly mocked Peres's judgment in meeting Arafat, terming the foreign minister "Israel's first astronaut."

Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center says the cease-fire will not succeed unless Israel quickly lifts its sieges that paralyze towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And he went on to say, "If there is no prospect of political change, the cease-fire will be a surrender, a living with occupation.... If the Americans interfere, it can make a difference, but it must be with substance. A cease-fire cannot stand by itself. It must be accompanied by political hope."

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