The renewal of security cooperation despite the absence of agreement on the issues driving the current Palestinian uprising reflects both sides' desire to avoid an unmanageable escalation of the violence that has claimed more than 350 lives over the past four months. It may also be an attempt to put the best possible face on the region's failed peace process for the incoming Bush administration, in the hope of persuading the new president to remain engaged in the search for a solution. That certainly appears to be the Clinton administration's objective in sending out Ross to try one last time to narrow the gaps between the two sides over Jerusalem, settlements, the fate of refugees and other contentious issues. Washington has asked the two sides to create a document that lists the outstanding points of contention and succinctly summarizes their differences on each point. But neither side is expecting a breakthrough the current round of high-level talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders may be designed to simply create an agreement on their disagreements to hand over to the Bush administration.
If Sharon is elected, Oslo is out of the window
But even an agreement of such limited ambition may prove outdated within weeks. Ariel Sharon, the man most likely to be voted Israel's prime minister in the February elections, has made clear he'll pull the plug on the attempted thaw. Polls show that the Likud leader is set to trounce Prime Minister Ehud Barak when Israel votes, and Sharon has already signaled that if he wins, any deals reached between Barak and Arafat aren't worth the paper they're written on. Sharon declared Wednesday that "the Oslo Accord is an agreement that no longer exists." Even though he'd opposed Oslo, the last Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had agreed to abide by Israel's undertakings in line with the accord (although in practice his strategy was simply to freeze the process). Sharon is vowing to go a lot further, trashing the framework within which the current agreements have been reached. Although he also spoke of how peace would require "painful sacrifices," he explained that by this he meant that Israel was not going to recapture towns, such as Nablus and Jericho, already handed over to the Palestinians. But he has no intention of allowing Palestinian control over an inch of Jerusalem, or of closing down Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli observers believe that there's still a chance Sharon can be beaten at the polls, but not by Barak. The prime minister would have to stand aside or be withdrawn as his party's nominee to allow former prime minister Shimon Peres to stand in his place. Opinion polls show that whereas Sharon would trounce Barak, a Peres-Sharon contest would be a tight race. But if Sharon takes the reins after February 6, the document being finessed by Dennis Ross may become no more than the last will and testament of a dead peace process.