Dialogue persists despite Sharon stance of no talks

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JERUSALEM — There was a flurry of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy this week despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's repeated announcement that there would be "no talks under fire."

Amid numerous meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials at various levels were reports that Israel is ready to consider a proposal for reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The diplomatic feelers, however, alternated with several terrorist attacks.

On Saturday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met for four hours and agreed to resume limited security cooperation.

A day later, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed a 53-year-old doctor and wounded at least 50 other Israelis when he detonated explosives strapped to his body at a crowded bus stop in Kfar Saba, a Tel Aviv suburb near the border with the West Bank.

On Monday, at least eight Israelis were wounded when a car bomb exploded in Or Yehuda, another Tel Aviv suburb. A brother, 12, and sister, 8, were among the wounded.

Just the same, in a possible indication of the two sides' determination to continue talking, Israel and Palestinian Authority representatives held another round of U.S.-sponsored security talks Monday night.

The two sides agreed to "make an effort to lower the level of violence and improve security coordination," according to an Israeli statement.

The change in tone was reflected Monday in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which said Sharon regards a Jordanian-Egyptian initiative to end the violence and resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as "an important point of departure."

That was a far cry from Sharon's previous dismissal of the initiative as unworthy of serious consideration.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Sharon also was far from dismissive, saying Israel wants "some changes and improvements" in the Arab plan.

He also told the newspaper he plans to send Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to Egypt to discuss the proposal before Peres goes to Washington next week, where he is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell and to attend the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee.

Israeli officials stress that the original proposal submitted by Cairo and Amman has been amended to accommodate Israeli reservations.

The proposal now does not impose any preconditions on either Israel or the Palestinians, the officials said. The initiative calls for the two sides to implement a disengagement and security accord reached last October in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. Among its clauses:

*Israel would withdraw troops to the positions held before Palestinian violence erupted last September, lifting its blockades of Palestinian cities.

*The Palestinian Authority would stop inciting violence and would clamp down on militant groups.

*Security cooperation would resume, and eventually the diplomatic dialogue would resume as well.

*The two sides would not be required to resume peace negotiations from the point reached under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an earlier Palestinian demand that Sharon continues to reject.

While the terms of the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative have become more palatable to Israel, they nonetheless require Sharon to abandon his condition that Palestinian violence cease completely before negotiations can resume.

But in the Jerusalem Post interview, Sharon said the upcoming talks should be viewed as an attempt to put a stop to the current violence, not negotiations.

He also revealed that Israel is holding high-level economic discussions with the Palestinians concerning some large projects, such as joint use of Israel's planned water desalination plant, improving the water supply to Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and a Gaza-Tulkarm train line.

Political observers say Sharon's apparent shift is the result of pressure from the United States and the international community.

The vigorous public intervention last week by Powell, who demanded that Israel end a military incursion into the Gaza Strip intended to root out Palestinian mortar squads, continues to resonate in the region.

Powell called the Israeli response to Palestinian violence "excessive and disproportionate."

Saying there could be no military solution to the ongoing crisis, he urged the two sides to return to diplomacy.

Israel's political and military establishments are still arguing over whether Powell's rebuke prompted the Israel Defense Force's withdrawal from the square mile of Gaza it had occupied less than 24 hours before — or whether Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer already had decided to pull back.

But there is no argument that Powell's words represented a departure for the Bush administration, which previously had signaled that it would be less involved in Middle East policy than was President Clinton.

With broader regional interests in mind, the Bush administration wants to show the Arab world it is committed to ending the violence and putting peace talks back on track. That is now being made clear to Israel.

Europe, meanwhile, is displaying growing impatience with the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. France reportedly is preparing a proposal for the European Union to threaten Israel with economic sanctions.

While the "old Sharon" was considered impervious to international opinion, as prime minister he is proving anxious to avoid gratuitous tensions with key international players.

Sharon has sent his son Omri — reputed to be Sharon's closest adviser — for at least two meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Sharon insists he will continue to send his son, despite the attorney general's reservations about the use of relatives to conduct affairs of state.

In addition, security talks involving officials from both sides continue to occur.

The agenda in those meetings ostensibly is limited to security matters, but the line between security and diplomatic dialogue obviously is vague.

Moreover, Sharon has been kept informed about a series of meetings involving Israeli politicians and businessmen and their Palestinian counterparts.

Among them is the indefatigable Yossi Beilin, the leading Labor Party dove who no longer is a member of Knesset or holds any other public position.

Beilin's freelance diplomacy in the early 1990s was one of the main factors behind the Oslo peace accords.

Also involved is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who met last week with the president of Cyprus — and remarked cryptically that the divided island would be an ideal spot for belligerents to negotiate.

For more JTA stories, go to http://www.jta.org