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NEWS ANALYSIS Did U.S. anti-terror campaign spur progress in peace talks?

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JERUSALEM, Aug. 25 (JTA) — Last week’s U.S. air strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan may have played a role in pushing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. In the wake of those missile strikes, some Israeli observers were quick to predict possible American pressure on the Jewish state to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. These observers believed that Washington, certain to be criticized by militant Arab states for the attacks, would be anxious to shore up support among moderates in the Islamic and Arab world. The thinking regarding Washington’s role in the peace process has undergone some rapid changes during the past week: Only days before the missile attacks, some pundits were saying that the sex scandal plaguing President Clinton would render him powerless to advance the long-deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But by early this week, there were indications that the talks were making meaningful progress. Indeed, the signs of progress prompted U.S. diplomatic sources to predict that a new agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could be signed in Washington on the fifth anniversary of the historic ceremony on the White House lawn, where the Oslo accords were signed. Word of a Sept. 13 signing came amid indications that the two sides have softened their positions and are closer to reaching an agreement on a further Israeli West Bank redeployment, coupled with Palestinian steps to combat terror. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat himself gave credence to the more upbeat speculation when he made a series of positive statements in Oslo, where he, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Norwegian officials were celebrating the fifth anniversary of the initialing of the Oslo accords in Norway’s capital. Arafat called a series of Israeli concessions that he had indirectly received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “good beginning.” The Palestinian leader has repeatedly indicated that he would accept a 13 percent further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank. This is the basis of a plan, floated by the Clinton administration months ago, that also calls for specific Palestinian steps to combat terror. This week, for the first time, Israeli officials publicly confirmed that Netanyahu is ready for the 13 percent pullback, subject to certain conditions. And, while Netanyahu himself has remained deliberately silent on the matter, there are persistent reports that these conditions, too, have undergone a certain erosion. The Israeli leader is reportedly prepared, for example to waive his demand that the full Palestine National Council be convened to revoke the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian Covenant. According to these reports, the premier will accept a smaller — and, for Arafat, more manageable — Palestinian forum to approve the changes. Netanyahu is also said to have given ground regarding how much control the Palestinian Authority would have over a West Bank nature preserve that would comprise 3 percent of the further redeployment. Whether the new Israeli flexibility indeed flows from concern that Clinton, embarked on a what may become a long-term war against Islamic terror, needs to be tougher with Israel may be merely speculation. Officials close to the premier and to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai have been insisting for some weeks, without reference to developments surrounding the White House, that despite the appearance of deadlock, the negotiations were moving in the direction of an agreement. Some of these officials are cautioning that an agreement is not yet at hand, indicating that the predictions of a Sept. 13 signing ceremony in Washington are somewhat optimistic. Whatever impact the U.S. air strikes had on Middle East peacemaking, there is a broad and somber realization in Israel that a long-term and bloody confrontation between American might and Islamic terrorism will almost inevitably spill over onto Israeli targets. Associates of Osama bin Laden — the Saudi millionaire living in Afghanistan whom American officials hold responsible for the recent embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — have virtually said as much, promising to wreak retribution not only on American installations but on Israeli targets as well. Such threats are bound to inflict yet more damage to Israel’s already- weakened tourism industry. But beyond this, the threats are causing Israelis a profound sense of unease. Already, parents are warning their children away from malls and public parks — and of course from buses, the targets of many past terrorist attacks. The U.S. air strikes are also having their effect on Palestinian public opinion. Few Palestinians expressed support for the carnage wrought by the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. But many in the Palestinian community, as in the wider Arab world, have reacted with outrage at the American reprisals. Israeli experts believe that this reaction has already escalated violent confrontations in many parts of the West Bank between Palestinians and settlers, and between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. These confrontations grow daily more numerous and more intense — most notably last week, when a rabbi was killed in his home in Hebron by a suspected Palestinian intruder. Despite the reported progress in the negotiations, Netanyahu had harsh words for the Palestinian side when he visited Hebron on Tuesday, to pay an unannounced condolence call to the family of Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan. The premier said any agreement with the Palestinian Authority depends on it taking action against “murderers” of Jews — an indication that he would be intent on convincing the Palestinian side to clamp down on terror under its part of the agreement. He also held firm to his commitment to build permanent homes in Tel Rumeida, the Hebron enclave where Ra’anan was killed and where a handful of settler families live in mobile homes. Some observers warn that extremists on both sides may well be planning to incite a conflagration in Hebron to destroy any progress being made in the diplomatic arena. They point out that the U.S.-proposed redeployment plan would be implemented in stages during a 12-week period — during which acts of violence in Hebron could bury the agreement before it is fully implemented. There is precedence for this, of course. The gunning down of 29 Palestinians by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, shortly after the implementation of the Oslo accords began, and the bloody attacks against Israeli civilians by Hamas suicide bombers two years later nearly derailed the peace process. A titanic battle between mighty America and the shadowy Islamic terror organizations could provide an encouraging backdrop for this sort of calculated destructiveness in the weeks ahead.

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