In a modest victory for American diplomacy, Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres finally met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for two and a half hour talks in Gaza on Wednesday morning.
The meeting, first scheduled five weeks ago as a step toward ending a year of fighting, was repeatedly nixed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who insisted that all Palestinian violence should stop before talks for implementing a cease-fire could begin. Just last week, Sharon ignored American pleas for the meeting to take place and demanded that 48 hours of absolute quiet precede it.
The meeting's outcome matched the low enthusiasm of its participants. Israel and the Palestinians reaffirmed their best intentions in a joint statement: They vowed to resume security coordination, stop the violence, ease military closures on Palestinian areas and basically follow the recommendations made by the international Mitchell Commission in May. But they mentioned no timetable for the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza and said that they would meet again in about a week.
It was not the kind of bold plan that won Arafat and Peres their shared Nobel Peace Prize seven years ago. However, the Peres-Arafat meeting was viewed by Washington as an essential part of the effort to calm tensions in the Middle East and rally regional support for the fight against terrorism.
Although there have been more than a dozen high-level meetings between Israelis and Palestinians since the beginning of the conflict known as the Al-Aksa Intifada last September, and a handful of cease-fires that have failed to stick, the mere fact that talks took place showed a measure of goodwill on both parts. Talks also let Arab leaders, criticized by their people for failing to take a forceful stand against Israel and its American ally, temporarily off the hook -- at least Israel finally met with the Palestinians, as the U.S. asked -- and more able to cooperate with the United States in the coming war.
But the Peres-Arafat meeting raised an uproar on the Israeli right. While the peace-minded believe talks are the only way out of the current conflict, Israeli hawks maintain that only a decisive military blow can deter Palestinians from fighting the Israeli occupation and that Arafat will cool down the violence only when he is pushed into a corner. Right-wing politician and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted Peres for extending a hand to Arafat on Wednesday. According to Ha'aretz, Israel's high-brow daily, Netanyahu charged that Peres was "begging for a meeting with the king of murderers" instead of using Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that starts Wednesday at sundown, to repent for "the terrible disaster he brought upon our nation through the Oslo accords."
Sharon, who also disliked the idea of granting Arafat legitimacy just when the world has vowed to eradicate global terrorism, was certain to face intense criticism from the right, when politicians gather again after the Jewish holidays, for letting Peres go ahead with the meeting. Uzi Landau, the interior minister, told Israeli radio that the meeting made him feel "humiliated and ashamed -- not by Arafat but by a member of my own government [Peres] who has ceaselessly undermined the foundations of our national unity government."
But Peres' threat to resign over the meeting's repeated cancellations, along with almost daily phone calls by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, apparently broke down Sharon's determination not to "negotiate under fire." Indeed, a few hours before the talks began, three Israeli soldiers were wounded when a bomb placed by radical Palestinians exploded at an army outpost in the southern Gaza strip. Just three miles from the meeting site, as Peres and Arafat were politely exchanging points of view, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed when Israeli troops responded to stones with tear gas and live fire, according to the Associated Press.
But while the entire world, from family life to the stock market, television advertising to diplomacy, has been affected by the terrifying events of Sept. 11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems depressingly impervious to the currents of change.
After Arafat realized that he would be counted as one of the "bad guys" if he did not curb local terrorism, the Palestinian leader declared an informal truce that brought the level of violence down somewhat last week. Two Israeli women were ambushed and killed on the roads of the West Bank but, significantly, there were no terrorist attacks within Israel proper.
However, the truce was openly described as "tactical" in the official Palestinian press and in statements by Arafat's Fatah organization. In a cartoon published in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on Saturday, a Palestinian man waving an American flag and wearing an "I Love NY" T-shirt reassured his worried Palestinian wife that he was doing it just for the cameras.
In a recent poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, 85 percent of Palestinians support the continuation of the uprising, although more than 560 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers over the past year. About a quarter of the Palestinians killed have been children.
This heavy toll, which does not include suicide bombers or Palestinians killed by other Palestinians under suspicion of collaboration with Israel, has only radicalized public opinion. According to the same poll, close to 50 percent of Palestinians believe the goal of the intifada is "the liberation of all of Palestine" rather than the end of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The figure matches other surveys that have shown growing support for attacks against Israel proper and reflects the rising popularity of radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
It also bolsters claims that Israel is fighting a war for its survival rather than a rear-guard battle to preserve the privileges of occupation. According to this view, all Palestinian attacks, including attacks against armed occupation forces, are "terrorist actions" aimed at shaking Israeli morale and should logically land Palestinian groups on America's list of wanted terrorists. And indeed, according to an article in Ha'aretz, Israel is busy lobbying the United States to have Hamas, Islamic Jihad and possibly even Force 17, Arafat's personal bodyguards, added to the list of 27 terror organizations whose assets have been frozen by Washington. (In the same article, Israeli sources also claimed that Citibank holds the accounts of Bank al Aksa, believed to fund Hamas, an Islamic terrorist organization that has killed American citizens in Israel in the past.)
But, according to Aluf Benn, the paper's diplomatic correspondent, "Israel is far from America's focus of interest right now and Americans only want to put a check next to the Arafat-Peres meeting and remove this distraction from their to-do list. Other problems can wait."