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Mideast Tenses As Cease-fire Push Reaches Crucial Moment of Decision

June 13, 2001
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Israel and the Palestinians reportedly have agreed to a U.S. plan for a Mideast cease-fire, but 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 during the peace process.

After a late-night session with CIA Director George Tenet, P.A. leaders accepted Tenet’s plan for a ceasefire. Israel had accepted the plan earlier in the day.

Negotiations stalled earlier in the day 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, as Israel is demanding.

Late Tuesday night, American and Palestinian sources said the Palestinians had accepted Tenet’s plan. The Palestinian source noted one outstanding objection, however, to proposed buffer zones that would separate Israeli and Palestinian forces.

Despite reservations about some aspects of Tenet’s plan, Israel accepted the proposal after consultations involving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and senior security officials.

According to media reports, the proposal calls on Israel to stop attacks on Palestinian targets, withdraw troops to their positions before violence began last fall and refrain from reprisals that would hurt Palestinian civilians.

The proposal calls on the Palestinians to arrest terrorists, round up illegal mortars and other weapons, prevent attacks from Palestinian-ruled territory and refuse haven to terrorists after attacks.

Violence has lessened since Palestinian Authority President Yasser 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 since Arafat’s gesture.

Palestinian officials had objected to certain sections of Tenet’s proposals, which they claimed were not part of the U.S.-led Mitchell Commission’s plan, released last month, 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 plan, produced by an international commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, calls 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.

Tuesday’s deliberations followed an inconclusive round of three-way security talks in Jerusalem on Monday night. According to media reports in Israel, the discussions took place in a tense atmosphere, with outbursts of yelling.

Reports said that at one point Tenet threatened to leave unless the sides demonstrated seriousness about reaching a deal.

However, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said the developments gave him a “little more hope” than in recent months. Speaking at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Indyk said “it is possible, possible, that we have reached a turning point in the violence.”

Indyk said that the crucial factor now is implementation of the cease-fire. Only then can there be progress on the further elements of the Mitchell report, he said.

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 bombing. 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 after the Tel Aviv bombing.

On Tuesday, Palestinians fired three mortar bombs at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip but caused no injuries. Shots also were fired at Israeli troops in Gaza’s Neveh Dekalim industrial zone.

No one was hurt in the latter industrial zone attack, and the troops did not return fire.

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