Why Arafat and Barak May Seek a Little Calm

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Israeli soldiers guard Rachel's tomb in the West Bank

It may be hard to believe after one of the bloodiest weeks of the current Israeli-Palestinian clashes, but both Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat appear to be moving to calm the situation. The decision by Israel's security cabinet Thursday to refrain from another high-profile military retaliation to Wednesday's car bomb that killed two people in northern Israel is a sign that Israel's prime minister has recognized the danger in trying to shoot his way out of a crisis.

Israel had responded with air raids on Gaza after two Israelis were killed Monday in a bomb attack on a school bus, but that action had only served to weaken Israel's diplomatic position. Egypt recalled its ambassador in protest of the Israeli air raids, signaling a new chill in relations between the country and its longest-standing Arab peace partner. Even the United States criticized the Israeli action as "disproportionate and excessive." And that Wednesday car bombing proved that heavy Israeli retaliation was unlikely to stop terror attacks.

Although Israel vowed to retaliate "in a more efficient way" to the car bombing, a meeting Thursday between Israel's deputy defense minister and the secretary general of the Palestinian Authority appears to have established terms for a new cease-fire. Israel has agreed to withdraw its forces from the edge of Palestinian towns and reopen border crossings to coincide with the onset of Ramadan. In exchange, the Palestinian Authority has undertaken to stop shootings and other violent actions on the Palestinian side. Barak and Arafat reportedly also agreed in a phone conversation Friday to restore the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that Israel had suspended a day earlier.

The latest agreements reflect a growing sense that Arafat and Barak, each for his own reasons, need to avert an escalation of violence. On Arafat's side, there's the realization that no matter how intense the violence, he's unlikely to persuade the international community to send in a U.N. peacekeeping force. Solidifying the diplomatic gains he's made over the past two months may now require that he act more forcefully to tamp down violence and return to the negotiating table with greater international backing.

On the Israeli side, there's the realization that the more forceful the military response, the weaker their political and diplomatic position becomes. And the current crisis is ratcheting up domestic political pressure on Barak's beleaguered government, no matter how forcefully he responds to Palestinian attacks. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has indicated that it plans, on Monday, to support an opposition motion to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections. That would make Barak a lame duck prime minister, precluding any new agreements with the Palestinians.

As much as Barak and Arafat may want to calm the conflict now, it remains unclear to what extent they're able to control the situation. On the Palestinian side, Arafat's authority is increasingly challenged not only by the Islamist radicals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also by the rank and file of his own Fatah organization, whose militia have led the street confrontations with Israeli forces for the past two months. Barak, too, has to deal with some very angry generals and even angrier Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, and there remains vast potential for violence to consume the situation despite the best intentions of the leadership. Even so, those leaders know their vital interests leave them little alternative but to resume some form of political dialogue, even if it's months, or even years in the making.