Stepping Stones

Israel is preparing a package of gestures designed to revive the Mideast peace negotiations that have been frozen since work began on a contentious Jewish housing project at Har Homa in East Jerusalem two months ago.

The measures are expected to include firm steps toward building homes for Arabs in Jerusalem and the restoration of residence rights in the holy city to hundreds of Palestinians who forfeited them by moving out.

A government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, said this week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was determined to prove that he was not bluffing about Arab housing. “He wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize,” Fogel said, adding that this was the best answer to Palestinian charges that Netanyahu was interested only in “Judaizing” the city, which both peoples claim as their capital.

The Israelis are also contemplating a more flexible approach on various unfulfilled commitments made by the previous Labor government under the interim agreement — so long as the Palestinians resume full-blooded cooperation in the war on terror.

Among the issues being considered are Palestinian air and sea ports in the Gaza Strip; a safe-passage road link between Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza; and access for Palestinian workers to jobs in Israel, from which they are frequently barred by security closures.

The Palestinians remain skeptical, however, about whether Netanyahu can or will deliver. The Bar-On fiasco over the dubious appointment of an underqualified lawyer to the post of attorney general has left him both weaker and more dependent on hard-liners in his right-wing and religious coalition.

He can no longer hold the threat of a national-unity government with Labor over his disaffected ministers. As former Washington correspondent Akiva Eldar put it in a wry Ha’aretz column, “The Bar-On scandal has removed only Shimon Peres from the government.”

“[Netanyahu] wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize.” —

Moshe Fogel, government spokesman

The Interior Ministry, a fiefdom of the Sephardi Shas party, is resisting the prime minister’s attempt to stop its confiscating Jerusalem identity cards from Arabs who have moved either abroad or to the West Bank suburbs. And Netanyahu himself is defying international pressure to stop building 6,500 Jewish homes on Har Homa.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat complains that the Israeli government is not interested in salvaging the peace process. Speaking to reporters on his return from talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last weekend, he accused Netanyahu of “continuing to violate signed agreements.” He recognized the “good intentions” of Ezer Weizman, with whom he was meeting on the edge of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but he also noted that the figurehead president could offer no more than a gentle warming of the atmosphere.

In the longer term, Israelis and Palestinians reluctantly acknowledge that their best hopes lie with the United States. Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s Middle East trouble-shooter, was returning to the region on Wednesday. Under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Washington seems to have resigned itself to a more active role.

It has been pressing Netanyahu to come up with confidence-building measures, and American officials are now expected to take part in all negotiating sessions. Previously, the Clinton administration preferred to let the two sides solve their own problems, reserving its intervention for the final, critical stages, as it did over the Hebron redeployment in January.

This is clearly no longer enough. David Afek, the sober head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry research department, went so far last week as to pronounce the peace process dead. It will take all of Uncle Sam’s skill and leverage to resurrect it.

In an internal briefing that was leaked to the local media within hours, Afek reported that most foreign governments blamed Israel for the stalemate. He urged ministers to take the initiative and prove them wrong. Otherwise, he said, things could only get worse.

Aides to Foreign Minister David Levy denounced Afek’s assessment as a “provocation.” But it begins to look as if someone is paying attention.

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Palestinian Angst

Despite its propaganda success in the United Nations General Assembly, where 134 countries last weekend denounced Israeli construction on the disputed Har Homa site in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is in despair over the stagnant peace process.

Despite the fact that the United States was one of only three countries voting against the U.N. resolution (the others were Israel and Micronesia), Palestinian officials still recognize the Clinton administration as their best bet to bring Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom they accuse of dictating his own terms, back to the table.

The American Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, is expected to