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NEWS ANALYSIS Ross takes the political pulse to judge viability of U.S. initiative

JERUSALEM, Aug. 11 (JTA) — As U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross spent his latest Middle East mission taking the political pulse of Israel and the Palestinians, those he was surveying seemed intent on scoring political points. Despite long hours invested in meetings, it was clear that any major concessions Israeli and Palestinian leaders might be willing to make would come only when — and if — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes her first official visit to the region. Despite little progress, Ross did manage to secure an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on a means for re-establishing security cooperation. “This has been a good start and the process has been set in motion,”” he said. The Ross shuttle mission took on new urgency in the wake of the July 30 double suicide attack in a Jerusalem market. It also became the first test of a new U.S. initiative intended to accelerate the peace talks if a climate of security can be achieved. Ross” mission, therefore, was plainly being used by Israelis and Palestinians to win points — with the Clinton administration, with their respective domestic constituencies and, perhaps most importantly, with U.S. political and public opinion. There was barely a prestigious American television news show that was not granted an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For their part, the familiar Palestinian spokespeople did their best to vie with Netanyahu at what he does best — persuasive sound bites crafted to win sympathy from the viewing public. Apart from adding tension to the diplomatic crisis and urgency to Washington”s mediation effort, the terror attack in Jerusalem”s Mahane Yehuda market provided Netanyahu with ammunition for his allegations that the Palestinians aren”t doing enough on the security front. In one television appearance after another, Netanyahu flayed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his security officials for failing to take tough action against terrorism, failing to arrest Islamic militants and failing to root out the “infrastructure”” of armed terrorism in the self-rule areas. Netanyahu and his close aide, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, struck a responsive note when they referred repeatedly to the Palestinian Authority”s “revolving-door”” policy of arresting suspected terrorists only to release them a short time later. The metaphor was quickly adopted by American officials. Indeed, every statement in Washington and by Ross on the need to combat terror was held up by Israel as evidence that the friendly superpower had accepted the government”s basic position of “linkage”” — that a resumption of the long-stalled peace negotiations must be conditional upon effective and sustained action by the Palestinian Authority against terrorism. Israel”s charges were given added poignancy this week when a man wounded in the double suicide bombing died of his injuries, bringing the number of Israeli victims to 14. Eli Adorian, 49, was married and had four children. In a backhanded way, the attack also provided Palestinian officials with material for their sound bites during this week”s public relations sparring. Israel responded to the attack with its most drastic punitive measures yet, including a full closure that prevents Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Israel and a temporary “internal closure,”” which blocked Palestinian travel within the self-rule areas and paralyzed communications among Palestinian-controlled towns for almost a week. In addition, Israel for the first time suspended making tax payments that were due to the Palestinian Authority. Some of these payments are taxes on earnings by Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel. Until the July 30 attack, Israel regularly remitted such taxes to the Palestinian Authority. This last step prompted some criticism within Israel as well as in Washington and several European capitals. Arafat vociferously complained against Israel”s “collective punishment”” of his people for a deed that, he insists, Israel has no solid evidence to pin on the Palestinian Authority. Arafat”s position appears to be popular with his constituency. On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinian demonstrators marched in the West Bank town of Nablus to condemn Israel and the United States and praise the Palestinian Authority for refusing to implement a crack down on militants. Some of the demonstrators burned an effigy of Ross, who was portrayed as an Orthodox Jew holding a doll of Netanyahu in his hands. Arafat maintains that the bombers, who have yet to be identified, came from abroad. Netanyahu insists that even if the bombers came from outside the self- rule areas, they had to have been assisted by people within. During their talks with Ross, the Palestinians spent much of the time complaining about the security measures Israel imposed in the wake of the attack. Israel demanded that the focus of this week”s talks be the need for the Palestinians to address the security threat. Ross managed to get the two sides talking security, but he acceded to the Palestinian demand that Americans participate in the high-level meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials. He tried to get them to work together to identify who was behind the latest terror attack, but without much luck. Given that Ross” visit was likely to be used for sparring rather than for genuine give-and-take, why did Washington go ahead with it? Ross” mission, called off but quickly rescheduled after the bombing, presumably had a crisis-management component, intended to defuse dangerous tensions that erupted after the attack. But beyond this, Ross likely spent the week taking the political pulse on both sides — in order to bring Albright an up-to-date and informed assessment regarding the Israeli and Palestinian will to re-engage in serious negotiations. Albright, in a major policy address last week in Washington, stated that she would visit the region if Ross achieved progress with the two sides. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that the tentative re-establishment of security cooperation did not represent a “breakthrough”” and that a date had not been set for Albright”s trip. But, he said, if the cooperation materializes, the trip would be “highly likely.”” The U.S. initiative outlined by Albright accepts Netanyahu”s suggestion that the permanent-status talks be accelerated. But it also accepts the Palestinians” rider that this acceleration be accompanied by an implementation of the Interim Agreement, particularly the redeployments of Israeli troops from rural areas of the West Bank. The next redeployment is scheduled to take place in September. The Palestinians are still rejecting Israel”s first redeployment earlier this year, charging that the amount of land turned over to them was insultingly small. Netanyahu maintains that his rightist-religious coalition would not survive a generous second-phase redeployment — one that turns over as much as 10 percent of the rural West Bank lands. Arafat, for his part, faces growing disillusionment among his people — and this, according to experts, seriously threatens his political standing. Now it is up to Ross and Albright to determine whether these two leaders, each with his own political troubles and his own ideological agenda, are capable of taking the steps necessary for a new U.S. initiative to bear fruit.