News Analysis: Sharon Says `no Talks Under Fire,’ but Talks About Talks Intensifying

Many Israelis felt let down and even a bit embarrassed as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke of a possible cease-fire during meetings in Washington and New York this week, while Palestinian violence continued to take its toll back home. On Tuesday, Israelis were shocked when Assaf Hershkovitz, a young father from the West Bank settlement of Ofra, was gunned down near Ramallah by Palestinian terrorists. Only three months ago, Hershkovitz’s own father, Aryeh, was killed in chillingly similar circumstances.

Over the weekend there was a surge of optimism prompted by Peres’ diplomatic meetings in Egypt and Jordan. With each passing day, however, the optimism waned as Palestinian shootings and mortar attacks continued unabated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After meeting with Peres in Cairo on Sunday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quick to tell the world that Israel and the Palestinians had reached a cease-fire agreement.

He had to be corrected by Peres, who wriggled uncomfortably in semantic distinctions, saying Monday that Israel and the Palestinians had reached “an understanding” on a cease-fire, but not yet a written agreement.

Mubarak, enraged, accused Israel of tricking him, while Israeli sources said Mubarak’s announcement had been a ploy to impose a fait accompli on Israel.

Even the vague understanding that apparently was reached toward stopping violence and resuming negotiations hardly was honored.

Despite the disappointment and frustration, however, there does seem to be movement on the diplomatic front for the first time since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in early March.

Sharon’s policy of “no talking under fire” — no negotiations while Palestinian violence continues — has now been modified to permit talking about ending the violence, and talking about how to resume talking.

While the initial results are negligible, there may be grounds for encouragement because diplomats in the region — and in Washington — are more active than they have been for months in seeking to defuse the intifada.

Peres points out that talking with the Egyptians and the Jordanians about their joint initiative to end the fighting — even if it is based primarily on a Palestinian plan — does not contravene the “no talking under fire” policy because Egypt and Jordan are not the ones firing on Israel.

Moreover, Peres’ meetings in Cairo and Amman on Sunday, prior to his trip to the United States, were preceded by discreet conversations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, not all of which are public knowledge.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat himself, in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian on Monday, referred to Sharon’s son, Omri, as his “hot line” to the Israeli premier. He also implied that his meetings with Omri, which have been criticized by Israel’s attorney general as a breach of state protocol, are more frequent than the Israeli public knows.

A crucial element in the ongoing developments is Peres’ ability to work harmoniously with Sharon. Their relationship is becoming a fulcrum around which Israeli policy and international diplomacy revolve.

When the unity government was established, correspondents referred to the “odd couple” — two septuagenarians whose friendship and political rivalry go back a half a century.

Many observers wrote then that the stability and longevity of the Sharon government ultimately would depend on the pair’s ability to set aside their deep political differences and work side by side.

But even the most optimistic commentators hardly predicted the close working relationship that seems to be developing.

Indeed, comparisons were drawn this week between the Rabin-Peres relationship in the 1992 government — which ultimately produced the Oslo accords with the Palestinians and the peace treaty with Jordan — and the present collaboration between Sharon and Peres.

The enigma, of course, remains Sharon himself.

Its withdrawal within hours, following stiff international pressure, seemed to epitomize a new, moderate Sharon.

That moderate Sharon, together with Peres, appears to be coordinating the delicate diplomatic effort to end the intifada before it spirals out of control and drags the region into wider war.

But no amount of moderation and sagacity on the Israeli side can be effective if — as some analysts fear — there is no authoritative power on the Palestinian side, or at least no will to end the violence.

This week, for example, there was talk within the Palestinian Authority of disbanding the Tanzim militias, the armed wing of Arafat’s own Fatah movement. With the Tanzim leading the fight against Israel — and Palestinian opinion polls showing great popular support for armed struggle — there is no certainty that an order from Arafat to disband the militias would be obeyed.

Arafat claims to have ordered a cessation of violence in recent weeks, though the Tanzim and other groups deny this.

With violence continuing, the conclusion is either that Arafat’s orders no longer carry weight with the Palestinian militias — or that his apparent moves toward moderation are primarily for international consumption.

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