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Mideast Diplomatic Activity Resumes, but Can Any Magic Formula Be Found?

Middle East diplomacy shifted to New York this week amid widespread skepticism that there is any formula that can convince Israel and the Palestinians to make even slight progress toward peace.

Officials from a group known as the Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — were meeting here in an effort to devise a strategy that would help Israel and the Palestinians overcome their seemingly intractable differences.

Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian diplomats were also slated to take part in the meetings, which were getting off the ground on Tuesday.

Questions have already been raised, however, whether Quartet officials will be able to reach agreement among themselves on how to go forward — to say nothing about whether Israeli or Palestinian officials will be willing to accept any proposals emerging from the Quartet.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reportedly wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is hosting the meeting in New York, requesting that the Quartet display unanimity in their proposals in order to increase the likelihood of meaningful progress.

The meetings come three weeks after President Bush stunned many by calling for the ouster of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and coming down so strongly on Israel’s side.

Since then, many have questioned how to move forward with the vision he outlined. In addition to calling for a new Palestinian leadership, Bush said June 24 that he envisioned a provisional Palestinian state within three years, but only after the Palestinians implement serious economic and political reforms.

Now, during the New York meeting, Arab leaders are reportedly preparing to present a plan calling for international recognition of a Palestinian state, followed by a two-year period to work out the final borders.

The Arab plan calls for Palestinian elections for a new leader and Parliament in January, The Associated Press reported Monday, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

Shortly after the elections, the Palestinians would seek U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, the source said.

This would be unacceptable to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has ruled out such borders. But observers believe it could serve as the basis for further negotiations.

For his part, Sharon has long maintained that there would be no negotiations with the Palestinians as long as violence continues.

With the current lull in Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians — coming as the army maintains its firm grip on Palestinian population centers in the West Bank — some observers believe there is now an opportunity for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to get back to the negotiating table.

However, Sharon, too, has said that Arafat must be replaced before there can be any meaningful negotiations.

Arafat was among the topics discussed when Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer met Monday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

After the meeting in Alexandria, Ben-Eliezer said he and Mubarak had disagreed over whether Arafat should be sidelined.

According to Ben-Eliezer, Mubarak believed peace efforts could continue with Arafat remaining as head of the Palestinian Authority.

“According to what we believe,” Ben-Eliezer told reporters, Arafat “was and still is the main problem.”

In another development, Sharon agreed Sunday to further meetings between Peres and Palestinian officials.

The talks, slated to be held this week, were to focus on ways of improving the lives of Palestinian civilians, but were not to tackle any diplomatic issues.

Sharon canceled a meeting Saturday night between Peres and Palestinian officials. According to Israeli media reports, Sharon objected to the participation of Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat, who is considered too close to Arafat.

He reversed his position after a meeting Sunday with Peres, during which Sharon set out the parameters for Peres’ talks with the Palestinians.

Observers said the canceled meeting was part of an ongoing disagreement between Sharon and Peres over how to proceed in the contacts with the Palestinians and a turf war between them over the diplomatic effort in general.

Sharon’s decision to cancel Saturday’s meeting reportedly angered Peres, as did another Sharon decision to send the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Dov Weisglass, and the prime minister’s military adviser, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, to the United States.

The two were due to meet with senior U.S. officials to coordinate positions prior to the meeting of the Quartet in New York.

Peres reportedly complained to Sharon that he had been left out of the loop and demanded that a Foreign Ministry representative be included in the trip.

Instead, Sharon canceled the trip and sent a telegram to Powell outlining the Israeli position.

According to reports, Sharon stressed in the telegram that security is still Israel’s utmost priority.

The prime minister also dismissed Arafat’s claims of taking steps to reform the Palestinian Authority.

Such steps have merely been “cosmetic,” Sharon reportedly said in the message.

Sharon’s telegram came on the heels of one sent to Powell by Arafat in which the Palestinian leader spelled out his vision for reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

Last week, Peres held separate meetings with the newly appointed Palestinian interior and finance ministers in what were the first high-level sessions between the two sides in months.

It was no coincidence that Peres limited those meetings to two newly appointed Palestinian Cabinet ministers. According to Israeli media reports, Sharon is staunchly opposed to holding contacts with any Palestinian officials “tainted” by terrorism.

There have been no terror attacks on Israeli civilians since mid-June, when 31 Israelis were killed in three successive attacks.

Many Israelis credit the lull in terror to the Israel Defense Force’s ongoing anti-terror campaign in the West Bank.

During the campaign, according to security officials, the army has arrested some 200 wanted Palestinians and thwarted several attempted terror attacks.

Over the weekend alone, the army said it prevented two such attacks.

One of the attacks was averted last Friday night, officials said, when Israeli troops operating near Kalkilya spotted a suspicious-looking car whose occupants fled when the soldiers fired warning shots.

The vehicle, which was booby-trapped, contained four bombs and cylinders packed with nails, screws and sharp metal objects.

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