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With Situation Looking Bleak, Spate of Proposals Raised to Move Forward

The aphorism that things must get worse before they get better fits today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict like a glove.

Twenty-two months of armed conflict have taken their toll on both sides. Beyond the dead and wounded, economic suffering has reached new heights.

As the Israeli economy sinks into deeper recession, and life for the Palestinians under curfew and closure becomes unbearable, both sides are looking for a way out. The past few weeks have seen more creative thinking, open meetings, back channels and international involvement than at any time in the past two years.

Those efforts might be derailed, at least temporarily, by Israel’s airstrike in Gaza early Tuesday morning, which killed Hamas military leader Salah Shehada and at least 15 civilians. The attack was widely condemned internationally because of the civilian casualty toll.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called the attack a massacre and said it had scuttled what he claimed was a potential Hamas agreement to suspend suicide bombings.

For its part, Hamas vowed vengeance, threatening to accelerate violence, which had been largely under control since the Israel Defense Force reoccupied Palestinian towns and cities across the West Bank last month.

Some Israeli analysts, however, say the airstrike, other recent military successes against Hamas and the reoccupation itself have helped restore Palestinian respect for Israeli power. That, they argue, could evoke more conciliatory and creative Palestinian approaches that may spur the diplomatic process forward.

For Israel, three issues are key: a cease-fire, reform of the Palestinian armed forces and a Palestinian decision-making process that bypasses Arafat.

For the Palestinians, the immediate goals are an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank cities and alleviation of the population’s day-to-day hardships.

Various formulas are being proposed to meet those goals.

In talks this months with Palestinian leaders other than Arafat, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been trying to find creative solutions for all these problems.

On withdrawal, Peres proposes a “Judea First” option, under which the IDF would withdraw from cities in the southern West Bank such as Jericho, Hebron and Bethlehem. If those places remain quiet, the IDF would start pulling out of northern cities like Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah.

Peres has hinted that total withdrawal would be contingent on a clear Palestinian blueprint for new elections. The voting would take place as soon as Israel completes its withdrawal, and the outcome would have to guarantee that Arafat is neutralized.

To help alleviate Palestinian suffering, Peres has said that Israel is ready to release about 10 percent of the Palestinian tax funds it has frozen — as soon as a mechanism is set up, with American assistance, to guarantee transparency in the money’s use.

At the same time, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana has been trying to arrange a credible cease-fire. He is urging Arafat’s own Fatah movement, with its Tanzim militia, to publish a unilateral cease-fire call in both the New York Times and the Arabic press. The Arabic version would be accompanied by arguments against the continued use of violence.

In Solana’s vision, Hamas and Islamic Jihad would then fall in line and relatively moderate Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would come out in support of the ceasefire. Israel would then start withdrawing from Palestinian cities, along the lines of the Peres formula.

Egyptian and Jordanian instructors would move in to train the reconstituted Palestinian security forces, which would be responsible for keeping the peace. A similar plan, by CIA Director George Tenet, has an added proviso: Palestinian police would be screened for credibility before they take over.

Peres’s Palestinian interlocutors on security and finance, P.A. Interior Minister Gen. Abdel Razak Yehiyeh and Finance Minister Salim Fayed, have presented plans of their own.

Yehiyeh put forward a more ambitious, longer-term security proposal: The IDF withdraws to the positions it held before the intifada erupted in September 2000. Palestinian forces move in and take over security responsibility.

Under Yehiyeh’s plan, Israel and the Palestinians then renew security cooperation and the Palestinians carry out Israel’s major security demands: reducing the number of different armed forces from over a dozen to three under one unified command; confiscating illegal weapons; and ending incitement against Israel.

Fayed proposes a 100-day plan for thorough reform of P.A. financial practices. To create absolute transparency, he is proposing that all Palestinian funding go through just one bank, and that he sign all checks personally.

Other, less official groups of Israelis and Palestinians have been putting forward even farther-reaching proposals. In back channels, mainly in Israel and Europe, they have been sounding each other out — and drafting plans for a permanent peace deal.

One of the more interesting proposals emerged from a mid-July meeting in Belgium between Ziyad Abu Ziyad, the P.A. official formerly in charge of Jerusalem affairs, and a group of Israeli academics.

Abu Ziyad published a statement of principles that included major Palestinian concessions on two of the issues that torpedoed the Camp David process: sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

Regarding the Temple Mount, Abu Ziyad proposed that there be no sovereignty, but rather Palestinian administration of the mosques atop the mount and Israeli administration of the Western Wall along its side. As for the refugees, they would have the right to return to a new state of Palestine, not Israel.

These are proposals the Israeli left, at least, could live with. They seem to indicate a new and potentially important pragmatism in some Palestinian quarters after 22 months of bloodletting.

On the Israeli side, in meetings in Greece and elsewhere, former Shin Bet domestic security service head Ami Ayalon has been airing similar proposals to Palestinian moderates such as Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh, the top PLO official for Jerusalem.

Politicians on both sides have failed their people, who should be given a chance to take charge of their own destiny, Ayalon says. As soon as groups from the two sides have agreed on a draft peace deal, they will seek to gather a million signatures on each side to force the politicians’ hands, Ayalon says.

Given the situation on the ground, such solutions might seem light years away right now. But, perhaps, as the old aphorism suggests, things will start moving precisely because the situation is so bad.

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