Why Latest Mideast Peace Proposal Probably Won't Fly

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Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (l.) and Egyptian counterpart Amr Moussa

Anything is possible in the world of hypotheticals, and it is in that realm that the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire plan resides. Transpose it into the harsh light of contemporary reality, and the chances are minimal of it being anything but stillborn. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres arrived in the U.S. Monday for talks with the Bush administration on the plan put forward by Egypt and Jordan to have Israelis and Palestinians resume political dialog after both sides take steps to reduce the current level of violence.

Peres's purpose, of course, is to apprise Washington of Israelís reservations over the proposals. And to be sure, Israel — like the Palestinians — has plenty of cause for skepticism over the plan. Indeed, it's hard to avoid seeing the latest proposals from Amman and Cairo as a warmed-over version of the cease-fire President Clinton tried desperately, and in vain, to broker last October at Sharm el-Sheikh. Except that much has changed in the region since last October.

The plan requires that Israel withdraw its troops from around Palestinian towns and cities, while the Palestinian Authority takes concrete steps to stop attacks on Israelis from areas under its control. The two sides would resume security cooperation, and Israel would lift its blockade on Palestinian areas and freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. After four weeks, if the cease-fire holds, the two sides would resume political negotiations where they were left off with the Barak administration.

To anyone closely following the events of the past six months, the latest proposal is riddled with holes large enough to drive a tank — or a car-bomb — through.

For starters, the Israelis want to know the details of just what "concrete steps" Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Administration would be required to take to stop attacks on Israelis. And itís a fair question: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, which have been in the forefront of recent Palestinian mortar and bombing attacks on Israelis are not answerable to Arafat, and they've made it abundantly clear they have no interest in observing any cease-fire agreement. Even more alarming, though, may be the open defiance of Arafat being displayed by his own Fatah movement, whose armed Tanzim militiamen have fought running gun battles with the Israelis throughout the current intifada. Last weekend, for example, Arafat ordered the disbanding of local "Popular Resistance Committees" set up throughout the West Bank and Gaza to coordinate the armed activities of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groupings. But Palestinian sources tell TIME that Fatah leaders such as Marwan Barghouti have rejected Arafat's position, and a Gaza "Popular Resistance Committee" on Monday issued a statement rejecting a cease-fire and vowing to fight on.

And it's not just in the ranks of his own movement that Arafat is facing an increasingly open challenge. Having roused the Palestinian street for an intifada that demanded they put their children and livelihoods on the line in the quest for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, Arafat will struggle to persuade ordinary Palestinians that anything has been achieved that would warrant him calling off the uprising.

And the question of how Palestinian attacks will be ended is only one flaw in the proposal. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has instructed Peres to make clear Israel has problems with a blanket freeze on settlement activity. He's also questioning the four-week timetable, proposing a three-month cooling off period before talks. But most important, Sharon has made abundantly clear that he has no intention of negotiating on the basis of offers made by Ehud Barak. Sharon considers the Oslo peace process over, and wants to negotiate a series of long-term interim non-belligerency agreements with the Palestinians.

Factor in both sides' objections, and there's really not much left of the cease-fire proposal. Still, at least they're talking again — even if only to restate their mostly mutually-exclusive demands.