JERUSALEM (Nov. 26)
The guns have gone silent, more or less. Are negotiations next? Israel and the Palestinian Authority declared a surprise cease-fire in the Gaza Strip over the weekend, and, even more surprisingly, managed to keep it together despite violations by terrorist rocket crews.
That, twinned with the confident rhetoric from both sides, stirred speculation a peace summit could be in the works.
It began with a telephone call between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday night. Abbas offered to secure a halt to cross-border Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Olmert pledged in return to withdraw Israeli troops from the territory and put the military on a defensive footing only.
The deal went into effect early Sunday morning. Within two hours, at least five rockets from Gaza fell in the vicinity of Sderot, causing no casualties but raising hackles among Israelis who have learned to distrust Palestinian truces.
But the Palestinian Authority was quick to condemn the salvo as the work of renegade rocket crews and, in a more concrete show of good will, posted 13,000 policemen along the northern Gaza frontier with orders to stop the launches.
Olmert counseled his countrymen to give the calm a chance.
“We will evince the necessary restraint and patience, certainly in the coming days,” he said during a trip to southern Israel.
“All of these things ultimately could lead to one thing — the opening of serious, real, open and direct negotiations between us” and the Palestinians, Olmert said. “So that we can move forward toward a comprehensive accord.”
Abbas, for his part, made much of his apparent success in getting Palestinian terrorist groups — including members of the governing Hamas, the main rival to his Fatah faction — to hold their fire.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide, said all Palestinian factions would start a wide dialogue on “a full, mutual and permanent cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians” within days.
One senior Israeli political commentator suggested that the truce was timed ahead of President Bush’s planned trip to Jordan later this week, with a view to parlaying it into trilateral talks.
Shimon Shiffer wrote in Yediot Achronot that the agreement between Olmert and Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, showed that “when the ‘responsible adult’ arrives in the region, the naughty children decide to behave in a restrained manner.
“From here on out we can only hope that under the aegis of the cease-fire — if it is honored — the leaders Olmert and Abu Mazen will meet, and then a unity government will be formed in the Palestinian Authority, and Israel will respond by freeing thousands of prisoners and hundreds of millions of shekels that it has been withholding since Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Authority,” he added.
Much could still go wrong. There is no undertaking by either side to scale back actions in the West Bank. The Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad made a point of saying its abidance by the truce might be conditional on the restrictions also applying in the second territory.
Then there is Israel’s bedrock demand that Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in Gaza since June, go free before Israeli concessions begin, and the fact that the Hamas-led government has not shown any sign of accepting the policy changes required of it by Western nations as a precondition for full diplomatic engagement.
Khaled Meshaal, the supreme leader of Hamas, was in Cairo over the weekend for talks on Shalit’s fate. In a statement that appeared aimed as much at goading Israel as showing good faith, he said that Shalit “sends regards.”
Meshaal also warned the West that any calming on the Israeli-Palestinian front could be temporary.
“If the international community does not work to create a Palestinian state within six months, the Palestinian Authority will collapse, we will throw away the diplomatic folderol and we will declare a third intifada,” he told reporters.