Intifada at a Turning Point?

Could Israel and the Palestinians be reaching a turning point in their violent conflict?

A flurry of high-level contacts were expected this week, leading to suggestions that diplomatic efforts could finally be gaining some traction as the intifada nears its two-year point.

These suggestions came as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat faced a major challenge from Palestinian legislators, who were on the brink of voting no-confidence in his Cabinet this week. Arafat’s ministers forestalled the move by resigning en masse.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met Tuesday night with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Tel Aviv. During the meeting, Peres reiterated Israel’s willingness to withdraw from areas where the Palestinians take responsibility for stopping terrorist attacks.

Later, Peres’ office said Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer would meet with Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh in the coming days to discuss withdrawing Israeli troops from Arab sections of Hebron.

Finance officials from the two sides also were due to discuss the release of Palestinian tax money that Israel froze at the beginning of the intifada. In an overnight meeting, Peres and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly decided to transfer about $15 million of frozen tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority.

Reports also circulated of a possible meeting between Sharon and Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas reportedly called Sharon last week and asked for the meeting to discuss ways to end the violence.

Some observers speculated that Peres wanted to create at least a symbolic breakthrough before leaving for the United States, where he was scheduled to represent Israel at Sept. 11 memorial activities, address the U.N. General Assembly and hold diplomatic meetings in Washington.

Those who believe a turning point has been reached note the relative lull in violence in recent weeks.

Sharon said last week that, for the first time since the intifada began in September 2000, he saw the possibility of reaching a peace agreement — primarily because the Palestinians had despaired of winning Israeli concessions through violence. Despite such pronouncements, Sharon and other Israeli officials continue to dismiss Arafat as a possible peace partner.

Israel largely ignored a speech Arafat gave Monday before Palestinian legislators — the first time he has addressed them in 18 months — while U.S. officials dismissed it as nothing new. Arafat’s speech failed to discuss reforms in the Palestinian Authority, as many of the legislators had hoped, or to make an explicit call for an end to suicide bombing, as foreign governments had sought.

Arafat told the legislative council that he condemns "every act of terror against Israeli civilians," but did not say such attacks should be halted. He also omitted paragraphs, present in an earlier draft, that called for an end to suicide bombings in Israel.

A day later, Arafat’s Fatah movement released a letter saying it would prevent attacks on civilians in Israel. However, it suggested that it would continue targeting Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There was some confusion surrounding the letter. Commanders of Fatah’s military wing disassociated themselves from the letter, saying that violent struggle against Israel would continue. According to Fatah officials, debates over the content of the document have not ended, primarily over whether settlers should still be considered fair prey.

European involvement in the limited cease-fire efforts drew criticism. Israel’s army chief told the Cabinet Tuesday that the Europeans were in effect encouraging the Palestinians to restrict their attacks, rather than halt them altogether, Army Radio reported.

The tone of Arafat’s speech to legislators was not all conciliatory. He accused Israel of exploiting Palestinian terrorist attacks in order to attack Palestinians, and of using the Sept. 11 attacks to link the Palestinian Authority to terrorism.

Arafat’s address was viewed as a crucial test of his standing among the Palestinian public. But the speech was not well-received internationally, and even Palestinian critics lamented that he had missed the chance to make a major policy statement. At one point, Arafat said he was prepared to step down should someone wish to give him some rest by replacing him, but commentators agreed that he appeared to be joking.

The three-day meeting of legislators was convened to vote on the new Cabinet that Arafat appointed in June. On Wednesday, Arafat’s 21-member Cabinet was forced to resign to avoid being ousted by legislators in a no-confidence vote. Just moments before lawmakers were to hold the vote, Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations to Arafat. Protesting corruption and incompetence among Cabinet members, a majority of lawmakers speaking at Wednesday’s session of the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah said they would vote against Arafat’s Cabinet.

Also on Wednesday, Arafat set Jan. 20 as the date for Palestinian presidential and legislative elections. The United States had sought to delay presidential elections in hopes of having the Palestinians create the office of prime minister, a move aimed at turning Arafat into a figurehead president.

On Monday, Israel began gradually lifting the three-day curfew imposed on Palestinian population centers during Rosh Hashanah. Just the same, Israeli troops remained on high alert for possible terrorist attacks.

The alert was issued as Israeli officials revealed that they had arrested three Palestinians accused of plotting to poison drinks at a Jerusalem cafe. Two confessed to their role in the plot, police said.

The third, who is the alleged ringleader, is a chef at the restaurant. He will be charged with attempted murder later this week, according to The Jerusalem Post.

On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that another attack had been thwarted, this one by a Hamas cell that planned to carry out a double suicide bombing at the Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv. The report was based on details from an indictment filed in an Israeli military court against Mohammed Jarrar, 20, a Hamas activist in the Jenin refugee camp.

According to the indictment, two suicide bombers planned to sneak into Israel disguised as Muslim clerics. A doctor employed by Jenin Hospital drove the two bombers, but the three turned around when they saw large numbers of soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint, according to the report. Jarrar’s cell also planned to blow up a Tel Aviv skyscraper with a huge truck bomb, Ha’aretz reported.

As long as such reports continue to appear with alarming frequency, the chances for a real breakthrough on the diplomatic track remain slim.