NEWS ANALYSIS Latest efforts to revive peace unlikely to have immediate impact

JERUSALEM, May 6 (JTA) — A meeting this week between President Ezer Weizman and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat represented the latest effort to restore some forward movement to a Middle East dangerously adrift. Tuesday’s meeting came against a backdrop of accumulating concern that the state of rudderlessness that has beset the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be giving way to an ominous lurch that could wreck all hope of resuming negotiations. At the same time, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross was due in the region later in the week to attempt to break the two-month-old impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is not at all clear that any of these efforts will succeed in reviving the beleaguered relations, which also have extended to Israel’s other Arab neighbors. Weizman termed the meeting with Arafat an “icebreaking” effort and said it had been “largely successful.” He said a “supply convoy will follow in the wake of the icebreaker” – - apparently a reference to several gestures that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to make to the Palestinian Authority with the hope of improving the atmosphere. But when it came to concrete developments, Weizman and Arafat had little to announce. The Palestinian leader spoke of his “absolute commitment” to security for both sides. Weizman said he hoped to see the two sides resume security cooperation “within a few days.” If that happens, it would indeed signal a first ray of light since the two sides stopped sharing intelligence information — and broke off their negotiations — in mid-March. The impasse developed when Israel began construction of a Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa, in southeastern Jerusalem, a part of an area that the Palestinians envision as the capital of their future state. Three days later, a Hamas suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe killed three Israelis. At the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, officials said mid-week that neither the Weizman-Arafat meeting nor the Ross shuttle were likely of themselves to bring about a resumption of the peace process. At the same time, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors is deteriorating. This headlong rush toward trouble — atmospheric as much as substantive — involved the following developments: * A sharp and bitter conflict between Israel and Jordan over water allocation. Under the terms of the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, Israel was to supply large quantities of water to Jordan. But talks this week on the water issue involving Jordanian officials and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon ended in deadlock. As a result, Crown Prince Hassan and other top Jordanian officials abruptly canceled their participation at a ceremony Tuesday to inaugurate a memorial site on the two countries’ border for the seven Israeli schoolgirls killed March 13 by a Jordanian soldier. Netanyahu was to have conferred with Hassan at the site, thereby demonstrating that not all top-level dialogue in the region is at a standstill. King Hussein, meanwhile, was in Oman, where he was expected to try to persuade the Persian Gulf state’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, not to break off diplomatic ties with Israel. Now that mission, too, could be in jeopardy. * Growing signs of a reconciliation between Egypt and Iran, a worrying development for Israel. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Egypt and invited President Hosni Mubarak to attend an Islamic summit in Iran later this year — this despite the rupture in diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Iranians said Mubarak accepted, while the Egyptians said he is considering the invitation. Just the same, both sides said the talks were “constructive.” * Growing concern in Israel over Syria’s ability to arm its surface-to-surface missiles with deadly VX nerve gas. This development was first made public by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai six months ago. But this week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz disclosed more information regarding Syria’s manufacturing capacity, and pointed to the inadequacy of Israel’s civil defense to provide protection against the nerve gas. Some observers in Israel attributed the current focus on this issue to a reported dispute within the Israeli defense establishment over whether Israel should ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified last month by the U.S. Congress. Some Israeli officials and military officers fear ratification would lead to rigorous inspections inside Israel, which could compromise Israeli weaponry secrets. Israel has long sought to counter the widespread belief that it has a nuclear capability, and such inspections could well resolve all the speculation. Last week, during a meeting with Mubarak at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Syrian President Hafez Assad declared that Damascus would not abandon its chemical weapons unless Israel destroyed its nuclear option. His statement, aimed at demonstrating a strategic parity between the two states, has further raised tensions between Israel and Syria, whose peace negotiations have been suspended for more than a year. While there is nothing dramatically new or immediately alarming in any of these developments, taken together they constitute a worsening of the already tense atmosphere between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Netanyahu, who has gone from crisis to crisis since assuming office last year, could dearly do with some encouraging news on the peace front. His planned confidence-building gestures are designed to give new impetus to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. These gestures include a plan for building Palestinian housing alongside the planned Jewish quarter at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem. In addition, Netanyahu reportedly intends to persuade the Palestinians that he is serious about quickening the timetable for permanent-status talks. Further gestures are expected to include expedited arrangements that would allow the Palestinians to operate a seaport and airport in the Gaza Strip, and progress on the issue of establishing a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. Weizman told reporters after his meeting with Arafat that he hoped Netanyahu would meet the Palestinian leader in the near future. But sources in Netanyahu’s office were quoted as saying that they attached little hope to Weizman’s effort. They spoke of the need, in their view, for more time to elapse before the peace process returns to life. Increasingly, though, observers are wondering whether the passage of time is a commodity that the process — and the protagonists — can afford.

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