Christmas Showdown, Peace Plan Take Place of Silent Nights in Israel

It may take a Christmas miracle to prevent an international controversy from erupting over this year’s festivities in Bethlehem.

In a telephone vote Saturday night, Israel’s Security Cabinet rejected a Palestinian request to allow Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to travel within the West Bank from Ramallah to Bethlehem, saying Arafat still is not doing enough to fight terror.

The next day, the issue was superseded by reports of a new peace plan from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres under which Israel would quickly recognize a Palestinian state while other issues were still being worked out.

The United States, which in recent weeks has strongly supported Israel’s demands that Arafat crack down on terror, warned it would criticize Israel publicly if it bars Arafat from the Midnight Mass in the city where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Most Palestinians, including Arafat, are Muslim, yet in recent years Christmas celebrations have taken on a strongly nationalistic tone for the Palestinians, as world attention focuses for a day on Bethlehem. In addition, the celebrations strengthen Arafat’s claim to represent Christian interests in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian Authority issued conflicting signals on Sunday about Arafat’s intentions. Arafat said he would travel to Bethlehem with or without Israeli permission, even walking if necessary. Other Palestinian officials, however, told Israeli media that Arafat would not go.

In any case, Israel said its soldiers would not allow Arafat’s convoy to pass.

Arafat has been stuck in Ramallah since a series of devastating Palestinian terror attacks on Israel earlier this month. Retaliatory Israeli airstrikes destroyed Arafat’s helicopters and the Israeli army tightened its closure around Palestinian towns.

In addition, Israel and the United States have urged Europe not to invite Arafat to their countries on diplomatic visits. Arafat escapes abroad when the situation at home becomes particularly tenuous, but America hopes a European boycott will force Arafat to stay put and defuse the current crisis.

Some Israeli Cabinet ministers, including Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Peres, argue that barring Arafat from Bethlehem on Christmas Eve would only harm Israel’s public image.

But the Security Cabinet decided that Arafat must do more to crack down on terror, despite a campaign of arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants that left seven Palestinians dead in clashes with P.A. security forces this weekend.

Israel demands that Arafat arrest the Palestinians who assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October, who are still at large in Palestinian Authority territory.

At the same time, Ben-Eliezer eased some restrictions in the West Bank to make it easier for Christian pilgrims to travel during Christmas.

Israel has responded warily to the P.A. clampdown on terrorist groups. The crackdown prompted Hamas on Friday to announce a temporary suspension of suicide attacks inside Israel.

Israeli officials noted that Hamas did not rule out attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Analysts noted that Hamas had not decided to abandon terror altogether, but merely to postpone attacks for now in the interest of “Palestinian unity.” They also suggested that the decision could have been made in exchange for a Palestinian Authority commitment to refrain from rounding up Hamas leaders, leaving the group’s terror infrastructure intact for the future.

Meanwhile, officials from two other groups — Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, an arm of Arafat’s Fatah Party — pledged to continue attacking Israel.

And Israeli political circles were in an uproar over revelations that Peres had worked out a peace proposal with Palestinian officials

Since taking office last March, Sharon has insisted that Israel will not conduct diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians while violence continues. Peres, however, long has argued that Israel must present the Palestinians with a “political horizon” as an incentive to stop attacking Israel.

Sharon denied consenting to the initiative, saying Peres’ contacts with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Karia were supposed to deal only with a cease-fire.

Sharon’s office on Sunday called the ideas “dangerous” and “fantasy.” However, Israeli television reported that Sharon had been kept apprised of the negotiations, and had approved of Peres’ plan.

Under the plan, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Israel would recognize within eight weeks a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and in 42 percent of the West Bank that already is under full or partial Palestinian control.

Negotiations then would begin on final borders, Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem. The sides would agree to uphold a cease-fire and would discuss a role for the international community with regard to economic aid to the Palestinians, regional economic cooperation and an arbitration channel for the two sides.

Sources close to Peres initially called the report baseless. However, in an interview with Israeli television on Sunday, Peres did not dispute the report, saying only that nothing had been signed and that he hoped the Palestinians would accept the plan.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted political sources who said Sharon allowed Peres to engage in contacts out of internal political considerations, hoping to outweigh unrest among Labor Party officials who want to leave the national unity government.

The Palestinians also distanced themselves from the report. Palestinian Authority official Nabil Sha’ath said informal contacts had taken place, but not negotiations.

In addition, Palestinian officials said they never would agree to such a limited state.

Arafat has demanded all of the West Bank and Gaza, including shared control of Jerusalem. He reportedly fears that if the Peres plan is implemented, Sharon would not continue negotiations, and the Palestinians would be stuck with just a mini-state.

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