Peres Working on Cease-fire Again, but the Firing Never Seems to Cease

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is in contact with high-level Palestinian officials in an attempt to work out yet another cease-fire, despite the persistence of violence in the region.

On Sunday, Peres briefed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his talks with Palestinian officials and his preparations for a possible meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“Such a meeting could take place “in the near future,” Peres told Israeli television.

Reuters quoted a Palestinian official as saying that Arafat is “prepared to meet” Peres “whenever he wants.”

Peres has come up with a proposal that offers Arafat a staggered cease-fire on an area-by-area basis, with different steps for calming the situation for each zone in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The steps would be introduced gradually until complete quiet is achieved.

The proposal also includes suggestions for lifting Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian population while guarding Israeli security.

So far, repeated cease-fire agreements, including one Peres personally worked out with Arafat last fall, have failed to take hold.

Peres’ contacts with Palestinian officials have been controversial in Israel, where Sharon has pledged that there will be no negotiations as long as Palestinian violence against Israel continues.

Peres last week received permission from Sharon for talks focusing exclusively on arranging a cease-fire, though many observers noted that it would be virtually impossible to prevent such talks from touching on more substantial diplomatic matters as well.

Indeed, the Palestinian official told Reuters that this is the Palestinian understanding.

“We consider these meetings political meetings and not only security meetings. These meetings would be a retreat from the Israeli position that they will not talk politics without an end to violence,” the official was quoted as saying.

Other Palestinian officials, however, dismissed Peres’ desire for talks as a public relations stunt. Ahmed Karia, speaker of the Palestine legislative council and a senior negotiator for Arafat, was quoted by one newspaper as saying no such contacts would take place until Israel withdrew from Palestinian offices it took over in eastern Jerusalem and adjacent Abu Dis last week in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

The spiral of Israeli-Palestinian violence continued Sunday, with tit-for-tat strikes in the Gaza Strip.

Israel Defense Force helicopters rocketed the headquarters of Arafat’s elite Force 17 bodyguard unit in Khan Younis after an Israeli civilian was lightly wounded in a Palestinian mortar attack on the Neveh Dekalim settlement.

Earlier, Israeli tanks fired shells at Palestinian targets near Khan Younis in retaliation for mortar attacks over the weekend.

In other violence Sunday, two Israelis traveling on a bus were wounded when shots were fired at the bus near the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood of Jerusalem.

In Hebron, an Israeli officer was lightly wounded in the leg by Palestinian gunfire. Also, an explosive device detonated beside a bus carrying soldiers in the West Bank. No one was hurt.

Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians in separate clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One was killed after troops fired on Palestinians trying to avoid a checkpoint near the city of Nablus in the West Bank, while the second died when Israeli troops returned fire on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israel Defense Force.

Last Friday, Israeli security forces said they averted a major tragedy when they arrested two Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad in an Israeli Arab town on the border with the West Bank. The two, who were carrying in their car a 22-pound bomb filled with bullets, said they were on their way to attack a disco in Haifa.

In another development, the Center Party unanimously agreed to accept Sharon’s invitation to join the unity government, making this the largest government in Israeli history. In exchange, the party received ministerial posts for leaders Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, and the chairmanship of a senior parliamentary committee.

The move was blasted by the Meretz Party, which criticized Sharon for running up costs associated with government expansion when statistics released last week painted a stark picture of national unemployment.

The Center Party also has been derided as a group of overstated political significance. The party formed when leading maverick politicians from right and left came together for the 1999 elections, and was seen as a potentially revolutionary force in Israeli politics.

Yet its star quickly dimmed and the party essentially collapsed after its leader, Yitzhak Mordechai, was indicted on sexual assault charges in July 2000.

Of the Center Party’s three dovish members, two, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Uri Savir, dropped out of politics, while the third, Dalia Rabin Pelosoff, joined Labor.

Four of the remaining five members, including Meridor and Milo, are former Likud Party members.

The party’s inclusion gives Sharon some additional breathing room should policy differences lead Peres to pull Labor out of the unity coalition.

At the least, then, the move was seen here as a warning to Peres that if he deviates too far from Sharon’s guidelines, he should not consider himself indispensable to the government.

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