Little Optimism Over Peres-Arafat Meeting

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Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat in happier times

Expect nothing to come of the latest proposed Israeli-Palestinian talks, and you're unlikely to be disappointed. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres are scheduled to meet sometime this week, probably at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza. And that prompted Palestinian militants at the weekend to repeat a familiar pattern of launching a frenzy of attacks as a form of "veto" over any new moves towards a cease-fire. Five Israelis were killed and 80 wounded in two separate suicide bombings and a drive-by shooting on Saturday, and Israel responded Sunday with missile strikes on Palestinian installations.

But even before the latest attacks, neither side was betting the farm on achieving a new truce. For one thing, there's not much new on the table — the purpose of the talks is to revive the stillborn cease-fire brokered by CIA director George Tenet in June, but there is little reason for confidence that they'll manage this time around, as the latest round of violence underscores.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been relentlessly downbeat about the value of even talking to a Palestinian leader few Israelis still trust as a peace partner. He has insisted that his foreign minister be chaperoned at the talks by one of Israel's top generals to ensure that the conversation be confined to the matter of a cease-fire. The Palestinians insist that the issue of security not be divorced from the political dialogue they believe is essential to create conditions for a truce, but Sharon is determined to avoid anything that might be construed by his conservative base as negotiating under fire.

A heightened sense of despair

Last weekend's violence highlights a sense of despair in Israel over the lack of effectiveness of the military tactics used thus far to end the Palestinian uprising — not least because the suicide bomber in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya appears to have been a local Israeli-Arab, rather than an infiltrator from the West Bank. Even though Israeli-Arab leaders rushed to condemn the attack, the idea that Palestinian Islamist groups such as Hamas have support networks among the 1 million of their brethren that live inside Israel-proper is a sobering one for Israel's security establishment.

Sharon's cabinet, meanwhile, has put strict limits on a plan by the Israeli military to create a "buffer zone" on the Palestinian side of the Green Line border that separates Israel from the West Bank. Israel's concerns are twofold: Not only is such an action likely to draw harsh international criticism and intensify Palestinian pressure on Arafat to avoid cease-fire agreements; it is also unacceptable to Israeli hawks as a de facto recognition that Israel's borders exclude the West Bank settlements.

Can Arafat remain a player?

But even without Israel imposing a "buffer zone" on the West Bank, Arafat remains in an uncomfortable position. Sharon insists there will be no discussion of political concessions before a cease-fire has taken hold, and he's dead set against any resumption of the Oslo process. But a cease-fire requires Arafat to rein in the militants, and he's unlikely to risk confrontation with the hard-liners of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even his own Fatah organization without a political prize to offer Palestinians as reward. After all, the majority of Palestinians polled in various surveys support violence against Israel and oppose cease-fire agreements, and a year of clashes has substantially weakened Arafat's political control in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus Arafat's insistence that to meet with Peres they need an Israeli commitment to implement the Mitchell proposals, to lift the closure of Palestinian territories and to reopen Orient House, the Palestinians' unofficial headquarters in East Jerusalem. And he's unlikely to get those commitments from Peres and Sharon.

Still, Arafat's continued relevance in Palestinian politics is now primarily dependent on his ability to reopen the road of diplomacy as a viable route to statehood and an end to the occupation. Not the diplomatic grandstanding of trying to get the world to call Israel names at a racism conference, but the diplomacy of internationally-choreographed quid-pro-quo that began with Oslo. Without a peace process to speak of, Arafat will be relegated to an increasingly symbolic role as the center of gravity in Palestinian politics shifts towards those who believe Israel can be driven out of the West Bank and Gaza through protracted guerrilla warfare. And those militants are likely to do their best to "veto" any progress by intensifying their attacks in the coming days and weeks.

Like Arafat, Peres's own political position is in large part dependent on the survival of some kind of peace process, too. As an architect of Oslo, he too wants to maintain his place in history as a leader who won security for Israel at the negotiating table. And like Arafat, the absence of a peace process leaves him threatened with political extinction. Arafat and Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for their Oslo effort. But even if a new breakthrough were possible, right now, neither man appears to have the freedom of maneuver to choreograph one.