Mortar and rocket attacks on Palestinian targets Wednesday signaled Israel's intensified military campaign to force Yasser Arafat to end the violence, at the same time as Israeli officials met their Palestinian counterparts in Athens and Israel. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres meet senior Arafat-aide Nabil Shaath in the Greek capital for what Palestinian sources described as a "frank, difficult exchange of views." But the danger of shooting and talking at the same time was highlighted overnight when Israeli troops at the Erez border crossing into Gaza fired on a convoy carrying Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and other officials returning from a meeting with their Israeli counterparts.
Sharon's strategy has been to eliminate the lag time between a Palestinian attack and an Israeli retaliation; use tank shells, rockets and mortars in response to shooters; deploy helicopter gunships to selectively assassinate suspected militants; work behind the lines to capture enemy soldiers; and if necessary, seal off entire Palestinian neighborhoods and conduct house-to-house searches. And Sharon has instructed Peres to tell the Palestinians that all that there is to talk about is stopping the violence.
The latest exchanges of fire confirm that rather than showing signs of abating, violent clashes are actually escalating despite the Israelis' new hard line. The Palestinian Authority (PA) may be open to a cease-fire, but they'll need to extract a political price for it. In Athens, the PA reiterated its demand that talks resume where they left off with Ehud Barak, but that's a scenario Sharon has ruled out. The Israeli leader wants to restore calm and security, but he has no interest in putting the Oslo peace process back together.
And that's a problem for the PA, which derives its authority almost entirely from the peace process. In its absence, Arafat and his men are in danger of being eclipsed on the ground by more radical forces that have grown at Arafat's expense amid the rage and despair in the embattled Palestinian territories. The attacks that have prompted the heavy Israeli response of the past week were authored by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a group identifying itself as a Palestinian chapter of the Lebanese Islamist guerrilla movement Hezbollah. None of them have any interest in agreements reached between Arafat and the Israelis, and the Palestinian leader may be reluctant to take them on unless he's getting something in return. Then again, by remaining politically paralyzed in the face of an increasingly violent impasse, the Palestinian leader may see a further depletion of his waning control over events. And, of course, Sharon must be hoping for a quick response to the Israeli escalation, because the fallout from air strikes and shelling in Palestinian areas is likely to weaken Israel's diplomatic position and increase pressure on the U.S. from moderate Arab regimes to urge Israeli restraint.
So both sides may be weighing some form of deal, right now. Besides Wednesday's meetings, Sharon's son and closest adviser, Omri, was reported to have held a secret meeting with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah earlier in the week. But the violent chain of events of the past week may have generated a momentum of its own, leaving any cease-fire vulnerable. After everything that has transpired over the past six months, it's unlikely that these two sides right now could cement a truce capable of surviving a brace of suicide bombings and the suicide bombers would not be party to any truce.
To return to the rabbinical allegory, Sharon and Arafat may be doomed for some time yet to share their abode with the livestock.
With reporting by Matt Rees/Jerusalem