JERUSALEM (Jul. 22)
It was a week of contradictions in the Middle East. Allegations that senior Palestinian security officials were involved in terrorist plots against Israelis threatened to further hobble the peace process.
At the same time, a flurry of meetings involving Israeli, Palestinian, European and American officials signaled new hope for reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.
In Brussels, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on Tuesday in the highest-level meeting since April.
These parallel developments illustrated the complexities involved in breaking the stalemate.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself appeared fully aware of the difficult path.
While charging that the involvement of Palestinian police in planning terror attacks would be the gravest violation yet of the Israeli-Palestinian accords, Netanyahu also dispatched Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh to Washington with proposals for renewing the talks that have been frozen since March.
He also called on the Palestinians to move immediately to the final-status negotiations in order to make progress.
“I propose we focus our efforts and creativity in a comprehensive agreement between us and the Palestinians,” he told reporters in Jerusalem. “This is much better and it can provide what we both want — peace.”
In his call for talks, it appeared that the Israeli leader had accepted the premise that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was not aware that members of his security apparatus were involved in planning terrorist acts.
If he was aware — and it were proved true — then the peace process could face a total collapse.
Even a situation in which top-ranking Palestinian security officials were acting on their own to deliberately escalate the already tense situation could also have dire ramifications, suggesting that Arafat was not in control of his own people.
The United States cautioned the Palestinians to take the Israeli charges seriously, and Netanyahu sent a senior Israeli intelligence official to implore Arafat to take action, both for his own self-preservation and for the good of Israeli-Palestinian ties.
The allegations surfaced after Israeli officials arrested three Palestinian police officers last week near the West Bank town of Nablus.
Israel suspected them of planning to carry out a terror attack on the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, located near Nablus.
The three reportedly confessed to opening fire on Jewish settlers and conspiring to commit terrorist acts.
Israeli officials subsequently called on Arafat to launch an inquiry into whether Palestinian police are cooperating with the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas or acting independently to carry out terrorist attacks.
According to information obtained by Israel, two senior Palestinian security officers — Brig. Gen. Ghazi al-Jabali and Col. Jihad Masimi — were involved in planning the attacks, the head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Ami Ayalon, told the Israeli Cabinet.
Jabali is the Palestinian police commander in the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli official reportedly said Sunday that Israel had intercepted orders for the attacks that Jabali had sent to Masimi, a senior Palestinian police officer in Nablus.
Last week, Ayalon met with Arafat at Netanyahu’s request and told him how seriously Israel regarded any involvement by Palestinian police in planned terror attacks.
He also reportedly warned Arafat that the same elements who were preparing an all-out confrontation with Israel could turn against the Palestinian leader himself.
Arafat promised to investigate the allegations, and this week that commitment appeared to yield some results.
Arafat’s associates leaked word to the media that he had ordered the arrest of any member of the Palestinian police who had associated with terrorists, regardless of his rank.
Indeed, Masimi and at least three other police officials were detained Sunday for questioning in connection with the allegations.
In what may have been another gesture toward Israel, Palestinian security agents announced Monday that they had uncovered a Hamas bomb factory near Bethlehem.
Palestinian officials said they had found 10 large explosive devices ready to be used by Hamas suicide bombers, along with yarmulkes, tallitot and army uniforms that the terrorists could have used to pose as settlers or Israeli soldiers.
Ayalon told a Knesset committee this week that a developed terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups exists in the territories.
But he said Arafat is not interested in terrorist activities that would totally cut off relations with Israel.
Arafat’s recent moves signaled a turning point in the frayed relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat may have been affected by Ayalon’s warnings that he was losing control over his security forces.
But he may also have been preparing for a resumption of American involvement in the peace process.
For weeks, U.S. officials have been saying that it was up to the Israelis and Palestinians to find a basis for resuming negotiations, but the badly deteriorating situation may have prompted U.S. officials to re-evaluate that stance.
European officials, too, had been trying to get the sides together to advance the peace process.
Neither Arafat nor Levy gave details of their hourlong meeting during a European Union gathering in Brussels, but both said in a news conference afterward that it was a breakthrough.
“I am sure we are now going to be able to establish the confidence necessary to proceed,” Levy said.
But it remains unclear what proposals would restart the negotiations.
Over the weekend, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said U.S. officials at the highest levels were working on a “package deal” to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Erekat spoke after talks in Washington with senior administration officials. He gave no further details, but said any resumption of negotiations required a halt to Jewish settlement activity.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Uzi Arad, discussed the American initiative during his visit to the United States two weeks ago.
Naveh said little after meeting with State Department officials on Tuesday.
According to the newspaper, the proposal included a postponement of the second Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank scheduled for the fall, a move to accelerated permanent-status talks, a commitment from the two sides to refrain from taking any unilateral actions and a restoration of full security cooperation.
Without doubt, the Palestinians will have their own counter-proposals. These are likely to include a demand that Israel halt its construction at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem.
But at this point, it is becoming clear to both sides that without a resumption of talks, there may be little to look forward to beyond street clashes and an escalating death toll.
A recently conducted war simulation conducted by the Israel Defense Force indicated that Israel would lose hundreds of soldiers if it attempted to retake the Palestinian population centers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that the Palestinian death toll would reach into the thousands.