JERUSALEM, Aug. 20 (JTA) — 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 Monday night, Peres enlisted the help of German Foreign Minster Joschka Fischer, who in June proved instrumental in mediating a cease-fire following a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 21 Israelis outside a Tel Aviv disco. Fischer is on a three-day visit to 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.”
On Monday, however, Peres said that no meeting with Arafat had yet been scheduled.
Fischer met earlier Monday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. On Tuesday Fischer is to meet Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and will talk with Sharon later in the day in Jerusalem.
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.
On Monday, Peres came in for criticism from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who recently emerged from seclusion after his defeat last February and is arguing that world leaders should shun Arafat as a “thug.”
“If Peres meets with Arafat, how can we tell the prime minister of Sweden not to meet with him? It’s problematic,” Barak told members of the kibbutz movement.
“Arafat is not a partner for painful concessions,” Barak continued. “The knowledge that he is not a partner is a result of a practical check we made in an attempt to reach an agreement. We discovered that Arafat is not a partner; any other message is an illusion.”
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 this week.
Late Sunday night, a militant from Arafat’s Fatah party and his two children were killed when a building exploded in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials said Israel had attacked the building with missiles, but Israel said the man, Samir Abu Zeid, appeared to have been preparing a bomb that exploded prematurely.
An Associated Press reporter who visited the site found no evidence of missiles. Palestinian neighbors said P.A. security officials had visited the site shortly after the explosion and removed evidence of the bomb-making, the AP reported.
Regardless, Hamas on Monday said it had suicide bombers in Israel waiting for orders to avenge the man’s death.
“We have fighters inside the Zionist entity awaiting the signal to explode like an earthquake and turn the Zionists to pieces,” a Hamas member shouted over loudspeakers before Abu Zeid’s funeral.
On Monday, Israeli troops stopped a Palestinian truck driver who was bringing guns and ammunition from the West Bank.
Also on Monday, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron decided to suspend its patrols in Hebron’s old city, which is under Israeli control, citing continued “scraps” with Jewish settlers. A representative for the observers said that the patrols would only be renewed once adequate protection was established.
TIPH members say Jewish settlers have pelted them with stones. Settlers say the TIPH members give the Palestinians intelligence information on the movement of Israeli troops and residents.
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.