News Analysis: Twin Mideast tracks: peace push, signs of all-out war

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JERUSALEM — It was another week of contradictions in the Middle East.

Allegations that senior Palestinian security officials were involved in terrorist plots against Israelis threatened to further hobble the peace process.

At the same time, a flurry of meetings involving Israeli, Palestinian, European and U.S. officials signaled new hope for reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks.

In Brussels, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on Tuesday in the highest-level meeting since April.

These parallel developments illustrated the complexities involved in breaking the stalemate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself appeared fully aware of the difficult path.

While charging that the involvement of Palestinian police in planning terror attacks would be the gravest violation yet of the Israeli-Palestinian accords, Netanyahu also dispatched Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh to Washington with proposals for renewing the talks that have been frozen since March. He also called on the Palestinians to move immediately to the final-status negotiations in order to make progress.

"I propose we focus our efforts and creativity in a comprehensive agreement between us and the Palestinians," he told reporters in Jerusalem. "This is much better and it can provide what we both want — peace."

In his call for talks, it appeared that the Israeli leader had accepted the premise that Arafat was unaware that Palestinian security officials were involved in planning terrorist acts.

(Palestinian sources told the Jerusalem Post on Monday that the Palestinian Authority's Gaza police commander, Brig.-Gen Ghazi al-Jabali, urged his forces to escalate violence against Israeli civilians and soldiers with firearms — via Arafat's orders.)

If Arafat was truly aware of the order, and in fact had made it himself, then the peace process could collapse entirely.

Even a situation in which top-ranking Palestinian security officials were acting on their own to deliberately escalate the already tense situation could also have dire ramifications, suggesting that Arafat was not in control of his own people.

The United States cautioned the Palestinians to take the Israeli charges seriously, and Netanyahu sent a senior Israeli intelligence official to implore Arafat to take action, both for his own self-preservation and for the good of Israeli-Palestinian ties.

The allegations surfaced after Israeli officials arrested three Palestinian police officers last week near the West Bank town of Nablus. Israel suspected them of planning to carry out a terror attack on the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, located near Nablus.

The three reportedly confessed to opening fire on Jewish settlers and conspiring to commit terrorist acts.

Israeli officials subsequently called on Arafat to launch an inquiry into whether Palestinian police are cooperating with the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas or acting independently.

Two senior Palestinian security officers — al-Jabali and Col. Jihad Masimi — were involved in planning the attacks, the head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Ami Ayalon, told the Israeli Cabinet.

An Israeli official reportedly said Sunday that Israel had intercepted orders for the attacks that Jabali had sent to Masimi, a senior Palestinian police officer in Nablus.

Last week, Ayalon met with Arafat at Netanyahu's request and told him how seriously Israel regarded any involvement by Palestinian police in planned terror attacks.

He also reportedly warned Arafat that the same elements who were preparing an all-out confrontation with Israel could turn against the Palestinian leader himself.

Arafat promised to investigate the allegations, and this week that commitment appeared to yield some results.

Arafat's associates leaked word to the media that he had ordered the arrest of any member of the Palestinian police who had associated with terrorists, regardless of his rank.

Indeed, Masimi and at least three other police officials were detained Sunday for questioning in connection with the allegations.

In what may have been another gesture toward Israel, Palestinian security agents announced Monday that they had uncovered a major Hamas bomb factory near Bethlehem.

Palestinian officials said they had found 10 large explosive devices ready to be used by Hamas suicide bombers, along with yarmulkes, tallitot and army uniforms that the terrorists could have used to pose as settlers or Israeli soldiers.

Ayalon also told a Knesset committee this week that a developed terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups exists in the territories.

But he said Arafat is not interested in terrorist activities that would totally cut off relations with Israel.

Arafat's recent moves signaled a turning point in the frayed relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat may have been affected by Ayalon's warnings that he was losing control over his security forces. But he may also have been preparing for a resumption of U.S. involvement in the peace process.

For weeks, U.S. officials have been saying that it was up to the Israelis and Palestinians to find a basis for resuming negotiations. But the badly deteriorating situation may have prompted U.S. officials to re-evaluate that stance.

European officials, too, had been trying to get the sides together to advance the peace process.

Neither Arafat nor Levy gave details of their hourlong meeting during a European Union gathering in Brussels. But both said in a news conference afterward that it was a breakthrough.

"I am sure we are now going to be able to establish the confidence necessary to proceed," Levy said.

But it remains unclear what proposals would restart the negotiations.

Over the weekend, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said U.S. officials at the highest levels were working on a "package deal" to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Erekat spoke after talks in Washington with senior administration officials. He gave no further details, but said any resumption of negotiations required a halt in Jewish settlement activity.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that the prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Uzi Arad, discussed the U.S. initiative during his visit to the United States two weeks ago.

Naveh said little after meeting with State Department officials on Tuesday.

The proposal reportedly included a postponement of the second Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank scheduled for the fall, a move to accelerate final-status talks, a commitment from both sides to refrain from taking any unilateral actions and a restoration of full security cooperation.