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As Qurei Gets Down to Business, Hopes Rise for Peaceful Progress

November 18, 2003
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Sobered by what they see as past policy errors, Israeli, American and Palestinian leaders are determined to help the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, succeed where his predecessor failed.

Success would mean defusing the three-year-old Palestinian intifada and creating conditions for a new peace process based on the U.S.-sponsored “road map” plan.

Few of the main protagonists are overly optimistic about the outcome, but officials on all sides say they are determined to do better than they did during Mahmoud Abbas’ brief tenure as P.A. prime minister this summer.

Israel seems ready to make farther-reaching peace moves, the Americans are exerting more pressure on Israel and the Palestinians are looking to lay the basis for a more serious peace process.

Moreover, Israeli, American and Palestinian leaders all have their own reasons for wanting to make the process work this time.

In a series of meetings with their Palestinian counterparts, senior Israeli officials have intimated that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is prepared to offer Qurei more than he offered Abbas.

The Americans also believe they could have done more for Abbas, and they have been signaling to both sides that if Qurei takes steps against terror, they will lean on Israel to reciprocate.

“If there is any sign that Abu Ala is serious, we might try to make the Israelis do something to make it worth Abu Ala’s while,” a senior American official told JTA, using Qurei’s nom de guerre.

For his part, Qurei knows that if he manages to keep a lid on terrorism, he’ll be rewarded. With Sharon signaling a more conciliatory policy and the Americans ready to pressure Israel, Qurei is trying to shape a cease-fire agreement that would stop all Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians — settlers and residents of Israel proper alike — and soldiers.

In return, Israel would sign on to the cease-fire and suspend all military activity against Palestinian terrorists, including targeted killings. Qurei believes that Abbas’ biggest mistake was to initiate a Palestinian cease-fire that did not commit Israel to stop its anti-terror moves.

Sharon has indicated that this time he is ready to accept a mutual cease-fire, even though terrorist organizations might exploit it to regroup.

Sharon also is said to be considering offering a bold new peace proposal, including an idea for Palestinian independence beginning in the Gaza Strip, to be followed by the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and 50 percent of the West Bank sometime next year.

Sharon is expected to meet Qurei soon, with the focus on the cease-fire, release of Palestinian prisoners and easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement.

It’s not clear how many, if any, of his bolder ideas Sharon will put on the table in that first meeting.

Sharon has good reasons for wanting to take the process forward.

For one, he finds himself under growing domestic pressure. The Likud Party’s relative failure in recent local elections suggests a degree of public disaffection with Sharon’s party. Analysts attribute much of this to the economic slump that many Israelis link to the ongoing violence and the government’s failure to come up with a strategy to stop it.

Moreover, Sharon’s lack of a long-term peace plan has been highlighted by two non-governmental peace proposals making the rounds: the “Geneva accord,” in which Israeli and Palestinian moderates propose a detailed model of a final agreement; and the “People’s Voice” principles framed by former Shin Bet security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, which has been signed by about 100,000 Israelis and 60,000 Palestinians.

Both initiatives were well received in Washington, with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Minister Paul Wolfowitz going out of their way to praise them — and, by implication, implying that Sharon could do more.

Then, late last week, four former heads of the Shin Bet, including Ayalon, berated the government for not doing enough to reach a peace deal, which they said was dragging Israel toward catastrophe.

To silence his critics, Sharon is said be a preparing a major policy statement to follow the one he delivered in Herzliya before elections last January. Already dubbed “Herzliya 2,” the statement will give a better idea of just how far Sharon is prepared to go in peacemaking.

In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry is working on ideas to ease tensions through Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Proposals could include expanding the Israeli-Palestinian industrial area near the Erez checkpoint between Israel and the Gaza Strip, providing medical aid to Palestinian hospitals and launching joint projects for Christmas tourism in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Most of all, though, Sharon seems to have been influenced by behind-the-scenes U.S. pressure. For weeks now, the Americans have been pressing Israel to lift closures of Palestinian areas, transfer Palestinian tax funds and dismantle unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts.

Israeli officials believe the strong American messages were prompted partly by the U.S. imbroglio in Iraq. The subtext was that Israel’s tough anti-terror measures don’t help America’s already complicated position in the Arab world.

Conversely, the officials said, the Americans believe progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track could help them in the Arab world, as the United States could claim credit for delivering Israeli concessions.

For their part, American officials are skeptical about Sharon’s intentions. There was a palpable shift in attitudes toward Sharon after Abbas’ fall in September.

For months, the word in Washington has been that while Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was the prime culprit in Abbas’ demise, he was not solely to blame. Sharon could have done far more to help the struggling P.A. prime minister establish his leadership.

Qurei, who is considered a more accomplished political operator than Abbas, is trying to build the popular support for his peace moves that Abbas lacked.

He argues that what is hurting the Palestinian people most is the “chaos” caused by intifada violence and retaliation. A cease-fire would enable Qurei’s government to transform the quality of everyday Palestinian life.

More than that, Qurei has embraced the Geneva accord as a model for a final peace deal.

The Palestinians always have been reluctant to enter into peace talks with Israel without knowing what a final peace deal would look like.

Now Qurei can point to Geneva, or something very close to it, as the goal.

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