News Analysis: Time will tell what Ross accomplished in mission

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JERUSALEM — As U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross extended his shuttle mission here this week, it remained unclear exactly how much he had achieved in his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

As a result of the meetings, CIA officials will participate in a three-way panel aimed at increasing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

American officials said the panel reflected an increased U.S. commitment to renewing long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

But Palestinians saw the development as a reflection of how far the peace process has deteriorated.

The Palestinians insisted on the American presence in the security meetings "because we wanted a witness among us and a judge, because of the lack of trust between us," said Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath.

Despite the long hours Ross invested in meetings, it was clear that any major concessions Israeli and Palestinian leaders might be willing to make would come only when — and if — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes her first official Mideast visit.

In a major policy address last week in Washington, Albright said she would visit the region if Ross made progress.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the tentative re-establishment of security cooperation did not represent a "breakthrough" and that a date had not been set for Albright's trip. But, he said, if the cooperation materializes, a trip is "highly likely."

Israeli and Palestinian leaders were clearly using Ross' visit to win points — with the Clinton administration, with their respective domestic constituencies and, perhaps most importantly, with U.S. political and public opinion.

There was scarcely a prestigious American television news show that was not granted an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For their part, the familiar Palestinian spokespeople did their best to vie with Netanyahu at what he does best — persuasive sound bites crafted to win sympathy from the viewing public.

Apart from adding tension to the diplomatic crisis and urgency to Washington's mediation effort, the terror attack in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market gave Netanyahu ammunition for his allegations that the Palestinians aren't doing enough on the security front.

In one TV appearance after another, Netanyahu flayed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his security officials for failing to take tough action against terrorism, failing to arrest Islamic militants and failing to root out the "infrastructure" of armed terrorism in the self-rule areas.

Netanyahu and his close aide, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, struck a responsive note when they referred repeatedly to the Palestinian Authority's "revolving-door" policy of arresting suspected terrorists only to release them a short time later.

American officials quickly adopted the metaphor.

Indeed, Israel held up every statement in Washington and by Ross on the need to combat terror as evidence that the friendly superpower had accepted the government's basic position of "linkage" — that a resumption of the long-stalled peace negotiations must be conditional upon effective and sustained action by the Palestinian Authority against terrorism.

Israel's charges were given added poignancy this week when a man wounded in the double suicide bombing died of his injuries, bringing the number of Israeli victims to 14.

Eli Adorian, 49, was married and had four children.

In a backhanded way, the attack also provided Palestinian officials with material for their sound bites during this week's public relations sparring.

Israel responded to the attack with its most drastic punitive measures yet, including a full closure that prevents Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Israel and a temporary "internal closure," which blocked Palestinian travel within the self-rule areas and paralyzed communications among Palestinian-controlled towns for almost a week.

In addition, Israel for the first time suspended making tax payments that were due to the Palestinian Authority.

Some of these payments are taxes on earnings by Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel. Until the July 30 attack, Israel regularly remitted such taxes to the Palestinian Authority.

This last step prompted some criticism within Israel as well as in Washington and several European capitals.

Arafat vociferously complained against Israel's "collective punishment" of his people for a deed that, he insists, Israel has no solid evidence to pin on the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat's position appears to be popular with his constituency. On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinian demonstrators marched in the West Bank town of Nablus to condemn Israel and the United States and praise the Palestinian Authority for refusing to implement a crackdown on militants.

Some of the demonstrators burned an effigy of Ross, who was portrayed as an Orthodox Jew holding a Netanyahu doll in his hands.

Arafat maintains that the bombers, who have yet to be identified, came from abroad.

Netanyahu insists that even if the bombers came from outside the self-rule areas, they must have been assisted by people within.

During talks with Ross, the Palestinians spent much of the time complaining about the security measures Israel imposed following the attack.

Israel demanded that this week's talks focus on the need for the Palestinians to address the security threat.

Ross was expected to return to Washington later this week after winding up his shuttle mission Wednesday. He said his efforts had "moved things a lot" toward re-establishing Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.

All such cooperation, and the negotiations themselves, halted in mid-March when Israel began building a Jewish neighborhood in Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem.

Hamas terrorists launched two suicide attacks against Israel after the construction began, bringing the peace process to an all but complete stop.

The recent attack in Mahane Yehuda market prompted Netanyahu to demand that the Palestinians crack down on terrorism before the two sides return to negotiations.

He repeated that message Wednesday, when he met with Jordan's King Hussein in Aqaba.

"The ability to continue the process of negotiations and peace will be seriously impaired if proper action against additional terrorist attacks is not taken," he said at a news conference after the meeting.

"This is not a political test of strength. It is a question of the lives that are at stake."

He added that Israel had information regarding plans for additional terror attacks.

Netanyahu repeated his pledge that Israel would ease the sanctions it imposed on the Palestinian Authority after the July 30 attack if the Palestinians took meaningful steps against terrorism.

"What we would like to see is the fulfillment of the commitment to battle the terrorist, and when we see action taken in that direction we will adjust and change our measures accordingly," Netanyahu said.

Hussein warned that the peace process is currently at a very dangerous point.

"I tell everyone concerned that there is the need for us to ensure that we pass this dangerous stage and do whatever can be done to prevent further bloodshed and destruction," Hussein said.

The Jordanian monarch admitted that his talks with Netanyahu achieved no breakthroughs.

"I did not expect that this meeting would resolve problems in a very dramatic way. I conveyed my concerns and he conveyed his," Hussein said.

Netanyahu was accompanied to Aqaba by Foreign Minister David Levy and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu later flew back to Jerusalem for a meeting with Ross, who was to hold yet another session later in the day with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.