News Analysis: Renewed peace negotiations intensify political wrangling

JERUSALEM — The political game of bluff and counter-bluff picked up speed in Israel this week.

In the view of Israeli politicians at least, this provided palpable evidence that the peace process is moving — one way or another — toward its moment of truth.

The quickening pace of the domestic political wrangling was triggered by the resumption of long-suspended direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Strongly prodded by the United States, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's top deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, met Sunday in Tel Aviv. Those talks were followed by meetings of small negotiating teams trying to narrow the outstanding gaps.

Such actions heartened Israeli moderates and rattled the hardliners.

But by mid-week, there were indications that the direct negotiations had collapsed, and Israel once again was seeking U.S. intervention.

The United States, however, was reportedly unconvinced that the talks had failed. A State Department official was quoted as saying that public statements about a collapse in the talks did not necessarily reflect the true situation.

Within hours after Palestinian officials said the direct talks were fruitless, Mordechai's spokesman announced that the defense minister would meet with Abbas again on Thursday.

But in a sign that the two sides are not on the same wavelength, Abbas was quoted as rejecting an additional meeting with Mordechai.

Regardless of their outcome, the direct talks held earlier in the week led to some significant developments in Israel's domestic political landscape.

On the right flank of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, the National Religious Party debated whether to issue a formal call for early elections — as a way of signaling to the prime minister that it would rather bring him down than accede to a redeployment accord.

Also on the right, hawkish Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon warned that concessions by the prime minister and the defense minister could spell disaster for the country — and would definitely spell the downfall of the government.

Another powerful voice of opposition on the right came from Rafael Eitan, the minister of agriculture and head of the Tsomet Party, which ran with Likud in the 1996 elections.

Eitan threatened Tuesday to bolt the government if Netanyahu hands over more than 7 percent of the West Bank.

The U.S. proposal currently being negotiated calls for a 13.1 percent further redeployment, coupled with concrete steps by the Palestinians on security issues.

The Palestinians have already accepted the proposal. Now, Netanyahu must decide whether he will defy his hardliners and accept it, too.

Meanwhile, on the left flank of the governing coalition, the four-member Third Way Party recently issued an ultimatum: Either a redeployment deal is reached by July 29 or it would secede from the government.

This threat was later softened by one party member, Emanuel Zismann, who told the prime minister Tuesday that his party would "consider" seceding if the deadline was not met.

Among the coalition members with a moderate stance on the peace process, the fervently religious Shas Party, pronounced itself anxious to see the negotiations with the Palestinians wrapped up as soon as possible.

Other moderate ministers and prominent members of the Knesset coalition also weighed in, behind a thin veil of anonymity, in favor of concluding the deal with the Palestinians along the lines of the American proposal.

Adding his weight to those forces, President Ezer Weizman came out Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot with a public call for a government of national unity.

Some observers saw the president's move as a tactical step designed to pressure the coalition hardliners to fall in line or risk Netanyahu bringing the Labor Party into his government in their place.

Others interpreted it as simply another attempt by the pro-peace president to change the complexion of the present government.

Weizman has been openly and bluntly critical of Netanyahu in recent weeks, accusing him outright of letting the chance for peace slip away and leading the country toward new violence.