JERUSALEM, June 13 (JTA) Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to a U.S. plan for a Mideast cease-fire, but prospects for its success remain murky.
Both sides are skeptical about the “working plan,” as it is being called, but they did not want to reject it, knowing it could cost them points in the court of world opinion.
“I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the plan,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday. After consultations with senior security officials, however, he decided to accept it to “see whether it can lead to a reduction of violence.”
On the Palestinian side, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo noted pointedly that while Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had agreed verbally to the cease-fire plan, he had not signed the document.
There were further grounds for pessimism Wednesday, when security officials discussed how to begin implementing the U.S.-brokered cease-fire. According to a U.S. official present at the talks, the meeting was marked by broad disagreements.
Adding to the problematic forecast, Hamas officials announced that they will not abide by the cease-fire, and another fundamentalist group, Islamic Jihad, called the deal an insult.
Increasingly, however, Israel is holding Arafat and the Palestinian Authority responsible for all violence committed by Palestinians, arguing that as head of the Palestinian government, Arafat bears overall responsibility for actions committed by all Palestinian factions.
Much of the deal’s success appears to hinge on the Palestinian Authority’s readiness to crack down on the terrorist infrastructure it has allowed to flourish alongside eight years of peace negotiations.
After a late-night session Tuesday with CIA Director George Tenet, Palestinian leaders accepted Tenet’s plan for a cease-fire, with several reservations. Israel had accepted the plan earlier in the day.
Negotiations had stalled Tuesday over two main sticking points: The Palestinian refusal to rearrest some 20 Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists they released from jail shortly after violence began last fall; and a disagreement over whether diplomatic negotiations should resume immediately as the Palestinians demand or after the cease-fire is tested during a “cooling-off” period of six weeks to two months, as Israel is demanding.
Palestinian officials later noted another objection, citing the plan’s call for buffer zones that would separate Israeli and Palestinian forces. The officials charge that the zones would impinge on Palestinian territory, limiting the amount of land under P.A. control.
According to media reports, the proposal calls on Israel to stop attacks on Palestinian Authority targets, withdraw troops to their positions before violence began last September and refrain from reprisals that would hurt Palestinian civilians.
The proposal calls on the Palestinians to arrest terrorists, round up mortars and other illegal weapons, close explosives factories, prevent attacks from Palestinian-ruled territory and refuse haven to terrorists after attacks.
Skeptics in Israel noted that the Palestinian Authority has pledged to take similar measures in numerous previous agreements, then ignored its commitments.
Palestinian officials have said they will arrest terrorists actively planning attacks, but will not re-arrest those it released from jail for earlier attacks. Israel fears that the terrorists released last fall including several of the fundamentalist organizations’ top military strategists and master bomb- makers will return to planning attacks.
Violence has lessened somewhat since Arafat called for a cease-fire after a massive terror bombing in Tel Aviv on June 1, but the calm is relative: Israel Defense Force officials noted 124 “major” Palestinian attacks mostly gunfire, bombs or mortars in the nine days following Arafat’s gesture.
Citing Arafat’s behavior in dozens of previous cease-fires over the decades, Israeli pundits predicted that he would manipulate the agreement to maintain Palestinian violence on a lower flame, avoiding terror attacks severe enough to justify a massive Israeli response but causing enough damage to prod Israel into diplomatic concessions.
For example, on Wednesday just hours after Arafat agreed to the U.S. plan Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded a female Israeli settler near the Jewish settlement of Ofra in the West Bank, Israeli police said.
In another incident, Palestinians opened fire on a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, but no injuries were reported.
On Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen shot up an Israeli car traveling on a major highway between Jerusalem and the bedroom community of Ma’aleh Adumim in the West Bank. The victim, who was killed, turned out to be a Greek Orthodox monk.
Palestinian officials complain that certain sections of Tenet’s proposals go beyond a plan released last month by an international commission under former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to end the violence and renew diplomatic negotiations.
Israel Radio said the Palestinians sought to accept the Mitchell Commission recommendations as a package, without separating its security elements from the political elements such as a call for a freeze on Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The commission had called for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire to be followed by a “cooling-off” period, then a series of confidence-building measures from each side and, ultimately, a resumption of peace negotiations.
An American official said Tuesday, however, that pressure likely will be exerted to resume the diplomatic process even during the “cooling-off” period.
Briefing the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week, a senior Israeli intelligence officer said Arafat had taken steps to thwart several attacks in Israel since the June 1 Tel Aviv bombing brought the Sharon government to the verge of massive retaliation.
But the officer called the measures “superficial,” saying they appeared aimed primarily at reaffirming Arafat’s appearance of control over the situation in the territories, and easing international pressure on him since the Tel Aviv bombing.
In any case, the officer’s assessment was dismissed by Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, who said there is no evidence that the Palestinian Authority has acted to stop attacks.