Outline Emerges of Possible Sharon Peace Strategy
As Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, prepares to offer a glimpse of his peace strategy this week, the outlines are emerging of a potential deal with the Palestinians.
If Ahmed Qurei, his Palestinian counterpart, takes the bait, the Palestinians might have a provisional state in a year's time that would encompass more than 95 per cent of the population but less than half the West Bank.
Diplomats say the arrangement would involve Israel withdrawing from a small number of settlements and from areas the Palestinian Authority controlled before the start of the uprising in September 2000.
The barriers to such a deal are enormous. Israel would demand a prior end to Palestinian violence. Most Palestinians would probably reject a package they saw as confining them to densely populated cantons.
Diplomats close to the peace process are guarding their optimism.
"Expectations are rising again," Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations representative in the region, said last week. "If this peace process collapses before it starts, it could lead to frustration, violence and further bloodshed."
Mr Qurei has ruled out negotiations on a long-term interim agreement - a concept that has always been a central aim of Mr Sharon. He is demanding a final settlement now.
"We have no more time," Mr Qurei told the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv last week. "We cannot have interim agreements."
Some diplomats believe, however, that Mr Qurei might be tempted to renew negotiations with Mr Sharon on such a basis, as long as he could sell it as part of a seamless progression to a final settlement.
The two leaders have yet to hold a long-promised summit and are unlikely to meet before Mr Sharon delivers a keynote speech to the annual Herzliya security conference on Thursday.
There is much anticipation about its contents, not least among an Israeli public bemused by the prime minister's recent cryptic references to concessions and unilateral moves.
During almost three years in office, Mr Sharon has proved a master at maintaining the status quo. As long as his main task was to react aggressively to Palestinian violence, there was little pressure on him to reveal an exit strategy.
The public mood has changed in recent months, however, as the level of Palestinian violence inside Israel has subsided.
Mr Sharon is under pressure from opinion polls expressing support for unofficial peace plans rejected by his government. He is also under international pressure to ease restrictions in the occupied territories and to end construction of the separation barrier.
He has meanwhile lost support on the right for suggesting unilateral withdrawals from territory that his ruling Likud party still officially regards as part of greater Israel.
It would be uncharacteristic of Mr Sharon to reveal much of his hand at Herzliya.
He is expected to guard details of his broader plan for his first meeting with Mr Qurei.
But if Mr Sharon is under pressure, so too is Mr Qurei. Failure to wring any concessions from the Israelis would doom his premiership, which is already regarded as a "last chance" administration for the PA.
Faced with Mr Sharon's challenge that he will implement his plan whether the Palestinians agree to it or not, Mr Qurei may see no choice but to negotiate on Israeli terms.
Mr Qurei, a consistent opponent of the armed conflict with Israel, knows that the Palestinians have effectively lost the military part of their struggle.
Added pressure came from the refusal this month of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to heed his appeal to declare a ceasefire, although talks resumed in Cairo this week.
Some diplomats believe the militants, particularly those based abroad, may overestimate the pressure on Mr Sharon to sue for peace just as they misjudged Israel's capacity for absorbing three years of violence.
"They may think they won the war," said one diplomat, "but I don't see many Hamas helicopter gunships hovering over Tel Aviv."
Source: Financial Times (UK)