Q&A: Skepticism, Scant Progress at Peres-Arafat Talks

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TIME.com: Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres finally met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat overnight Wednesday. The U.S. has been pushing hard for the meeting to go ahead, anxious to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the interests of forging the strongest possible coalition against terrorism. What did the talks achieve?

Matt Rees: They don't really seems to have gotten too many people here excited. Violence continued even within earshot of the meeting, and all that Arafat and Peres appeared to agree on was to have some of their aides meet again "in a week or so." Who knows how long that will be or what atmosphere may prevail? They're not really exploring any new agreements as much as trying to find ways of implementing existing cease-fire plans.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] The major unknown factor remains how much Arafat is really going to toe the line of the international community on violence. His intentions could be seriously tested this weekend, because September 29th is the first anniversary of the current intifada. His ability to keep a lid on violence this weekend will therefore be a major test.

Israeli intelligence says that since Arafat called for a post-Twin Towers cease-fire, he has arrested one ticking bomb — a suicide bomber on his way to a target inside Israel. But that doesn't convince the Israelis, because he didn't arrest the Hamas leaders who planned the attack and gave the terrorist his bomb. In the worldwide anti-terror atmosphere of the moment, it would look bad for Arafat if a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up inside Israel. But he isn't going to destroy the terrorist infrastructure, say Israeli leaders, which means he can throw the switch at any point. Also, while he's acting to stop attacks inside Israel, it's not at all clear that he plans to stop attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank or Gaza.

Presumably Arafat will find it easier to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to restrain themselves rather than to face a potential confrontation on his own streets if he tries to shut them down entirely…

Israeli intelligence believes he has already sent that signal to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that for the most part right now, they're observing it. The message will be interpreted as no attacks over the Green Line (inside Israel proper), but business as usual in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat expects that the international community will see attacks in the West Bank and Gaza in a different light to attacks inside Israel. And, of course, the body count is always much lower in such attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, and the attacks don't exactly make headlines like a suicide bombing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv would.

After the Gulf War, in which he'd supported Saddam Hussein, Arafat managed to sell Palestinian activists a 180-degree policy shift — to take advantage of the changed international picture and get involved in the peace process that the U.S. was pushing in order to maintain the cohesion of its anti-Iraq alliance. Now that the U.S. has similar needs in light of the anti-terrorism coalition, could Arafat pull off the same feat again despite the widespread skepticism of his rank and file?

Once this process gets going — if it gets going — Arafat is supposed to get confidence-building measures from the Israelis, such as the lifting of the closure on Palestinian areas, a settlement freeze and so on. And under the present cease-fire terms, he'd get some of these things without having to sign a final deal ending the conflict. So that will help him sell a policy shift if he chooses to make one. But the real question is how far he's prepared to go in confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who have no interest either in restoring the peace process, or in an international anti-terrorism campaign.

At the same time, there is clearly some international pressure to take steps at odds with Sharon's own inclinations. The Israeli prime minister refers to Arafat as "our Bin Laden," yet the U.S. is pressing Israel to talk to him and applauding when it does. How does the changing international situation impact on the thinking of Israeli leaders?

In the Israeli press, some analysts see Sharon as being under more pressure from Benjamin Netanyahu, who has returned to the public eye as a "terrorism expert." He's saying things that are very popular, such as that terrorism must be eradicated. Of course those are things nobody disagrees with, but the question is how. And Sharon is forced to adopt a measure of realpolitik.

A year ago, when Netanyahu was cleared of corruption allegations and he moved to challenge Sharon for the Likud leadership, that pressure sent Sharon onto the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in a bid to garner support from the right which was then seized on as the nominal — and I stress nominal, because it was not the real reason — for the current intifada.

So, it's a difficult situation. And if things blow up in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Middle East, Israeli intelligence believe Bin Laden will do what Saddam Hussein did in the Gulf War and launch a spectacular attack against Israel — something a lot worse than a suicide bombing. So while Israel plans to sit tight and let the war on terrorism take its course, that could all be changed if Bin Laden does do something huge and horrible here.