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NEWS ANALYSIS Renewed negotiations intensify internal Israeli political wrangling

JERUSALEM, July 22 (JTA) — The political game of bluff and counter-bluff picked up speed in Israel this week. In the view of Israeli politicians at least, this provided palpable evidence that the peace process is moving — one way or another — toward its moment of truth. The quickening pace of the domestic political wrangling was triggered by the resumption of long-suspended direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In talks strongly urged by the United States, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s top deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, met Sunday in Tel Aviv. Those were followed by small negotiating teams of officials trying to narrow the outstanding gaps. All this heartened Israeli moderates and rattled the hard-liners. But by mid-week, there were indications that the direct negotiations had collapsed, and Israel once again was seeking U.S. intervention. The United States, however, was reportedly unconvinced that the talks had failed. A State Department official was quoted as saying that public statements about a collapse in the talks did not necessarily reflect the true situation. Within hours after Palestinian officials said the direct talks were fruitless, Mordechai’s spokesman announced that the defense minister would meet with Abbas again on Thursday. But in a sign that the two sides are not on the same wavelength, Abbas was quoted as rejecting an additional meeting with Mordechai. Regardless of their outcome, the direct talks held earlier in the week led to some significant developments in Israel’s domestic political landscape. These developments are certain to percolate as progress in peace talks remains uncertain. On the right flank of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, the National Religious Party debated whether to issue a formal call for early elections — as a way of signaling to the prime minister that it would rather bring him down than accede to a redeployment accord. Also on the right, hawkish Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon warned that concessions by the prime minister and the defense minister could spell disaster for the country — and would definitely spell the downfall of the government. Sharon was on an official visit to China. But he did not allow distance to weaken his criticism, giving voice to his sentiments on the air waves and in telephone briefings to colleagues and reporters. Another powerful voice of opposition on the right came from Rafael Eitan, the minister of agriculture and head of the Tsomet Party, which ran with Likud in the 1996 elections. Eitan threatened Tuesday to bolt the government if Netanyahu hands over more than 7 percent of the West Bank. The U.S. proposal currently being negotiated calls for a 13 percent further redeployment, coupled with concrete steps by the Palestinians on security issues. The Palestinians have already accepted the proposal. Now, Netanyahu must decide whether he will defy his hard-liners and accept it, too. Meanwhile, on the left flank of the governing coalition, the four-member Third Way Party recently issued an ultimatum: Either a redeployment deal is reached by July 29 or it would secede from the government. This threat was later softened by one member of the party, Emanuel Zismann, who told the prime minister Tuesday that his party would “consider” seceding if the deadline was not met. Also active among the coalition members moderate on the peace process was the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, which pronounced itself anxious to see the negotiations with the Palestinians wrapped up as soon as possible. Other ministers and prominent coalition Knesset members on the moderate wing of the government also weighed in, behind a thin veil of anonymity, in favor of concluding the deal with the Palestinians along the lines of the American proposal. Adding his weight to these forces, President Ezer Weizman came out Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot with a public call for a government of national unity. Some observers saw the president’s move as a tactical step designed to pressure the coalition hard-liners to fall in line or risk Netanyahu bringing the Labor Party into his government in their place. Others interpreted it as simply another attempt by the pro-peace president to change the complexion of the present government. Weizman has been openly and bluntly critical of Netanyahu in recent weeks, accusing him outright of letting the chance for peace slip away and leading the country toward new violence. It is not clear how these political pressures affected this week’s direct negotiations. Early on Wednesday, the Palestinians declared the talks a failure. “The Israelis did not bring anything new at all, and the American request for the Palestinian side to convene meetings with the Israeli side is over because there was no progress made,” Arafat’s adviser Nabil Abourdeneh was quoted as saying. But when asked by reporters in the Gaza Strip if the talks were over, Arafat said “approximately.” Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky dismissed the Palestinian charges, saying that they were aimed at putting pressure on Israel. Unnamed Israeli sources blamed Arafat for not having taken “the necessary steps” to reach an agreement, even as Israel had shown flexibility and had presented several compromise proposals. Mordechai, who headed the Israeli delegation to the talks, suggested that the two sides could work out their differences. In the wake of this latest crisis, Netanyahu and Mordechai urged U.S. envoy Dennis Ross to intervene. It was the U.S. inability to bridge the gaps — after months of mediation — that had led U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call for
the resumption of direct talks. This week’s acceleration of the political wrangling may signal that a decision — one way or another — will be reached before the Knesset summer recess, which begins at the end of the month. The pundits continue to argue among themselves. Netanyahu, meanwhile, assures everyone that he is determined to make a deal, and that threats from inside his coalition will not deter him. One thing, though, is certain, and its very certainty is a sad reflection of the reality in the region. Downtown Jerusalem was saved by a whisker this week from another terrorist massacre, when a van driven by a member of Hamas caught fire before its cargo of explosives could be detonated. Had the car bomb gone off, as Hamas apparently planned, there would have been no resumption of talks, no acceleration of the political struggle between hawks and doves and no heightened international pressure to promote an agreement.