ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Seizing the moment
Dennis Ross

While peace is not about to break out between Israelis and Palestinians, there is once again an opening to end the past three years of warfare. Both sides want to end the war, create a period of calm, and restore normal life for their publics. Those desires are not sufficient to reestablish faith in the other side"s intentions or to bridge the gaps on how to deal with Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. But they may be sufficient to produce a more enduring cease-fire and the resumption of a peace process.

In intensive discussions with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials over the past few days in Jerusalem and Ramallah, I was struck by their common perception that there may now be a new moment. They agree that a cease-fire must be comprehensive meaning, on the Palestinian side, that no Israelis are acceptable targets. Gone is the distinction between not attacking Israelis behind the "green line" and supporting violence against those living outside it in the West Bank and Gaza. Those Palestinian officials I spoke with understood that so long as Israelis are being attacked, the Israeli military will be making arrests and conducting targeted killings of operatives and leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. So all attacks must stop.

As for the Israelis, there is a readiness to stop all operations in the territories, including the targeted killings, if the cease-fire is comprehensive. Similarly, while the Israelis feel that the infrastructure of terror must be dismantled, they can accept a Palestinian approach that is governed by Palestinian terms, logic, and interest. In other words, if the Palestinian Authority begins to close tunnels used to smuggle arms and explosives; shuts down bomb-making labs and rocket workshops; and collects illegal weapons, all in the name of establishing a rule of law or ending what Ahmed Qurei (also known as Abu Ala), the new Palestinian prime minister, has called the "chaos" in the Palestinian areas, that is okay from an Israeli standpoint.

To be sure, Qurei"s government is likely to tie acceptance of a comprehensive cease-fire and its crackdown on the "chaos" to a number of steps by the Israelis: the ending of the siege and the lifting of Israeli checkpoints; a halt to the building of what the Palestinians call the "wall" and the Israelis call the "fence;" and a suspension of settlement activity. While the Palestinian Authority and its leading reformers believe that their own interests dictate having calm and ending the "chaos" on their side, they also believe that their capacity to act this way depends on the Israelis creating an atmosphere that strengthens their hand and shows the Palestinian public they can deliver indeed, that they can succeed in changing Israeli behavior.

The basis for a negotiation to reconcile what each side is looking for and what must be done to achieve it now exists, at least on these near-term issues. But that does not mean it will be easy or ultimately successful. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not find it easy to lift all checkpoints and indeed, he is likely to tie the pace of his actions to the pace of those on the Palestinian side. Moreover, he will face real political resistance within his government should he suspend action on the fence or the settlements. Still, given the growing pressures on him to show he has an approach that can end the violence and restore normal life - especially when he is being criticized by four former heads of Shin Bet; questioned by some leading officers of the military; and facing alternatives such as the Yossi Beilin-Yasser Abed Rabbo agreement (the Geneva Accord), which many in Israel may not favor but at least see as a possible pathway - Sharon has a strong interest in seeing whether he can forge an agreement with Qurei.

Qurei shares the interest in reaching an agreement that transforms the current situation. Without it, his tenure as prime minister will be no more successful than his predecessor"s and might not be any longer. But his task will be formidable. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are unlikely simply to acquiesce, much less give Qurei time to succeed in negotiations that will affect their futures. And Qurei does not control the security apparatus in the new government; Yasser Arafat does. Will he permit the security forces to act? Will he permit Qurei to succeed?

Most Israelis are skeptical, but they believe it is worth seeing what Qurei can do. The alternatives are grim for both sides. And whatever Qurei says about bringing Arafat along, the only thing that will matter is whether he can make commitments on security and deliver on them. For now, we are likely to see an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation done bilaterally, with only limited American involvement. We will see in the coming weeks whether the current moment of opportunity can be seized or whether it too will be lost. One thing is for sure: if it is lost and Abu Ala fails, there won"t be a third Palestinian prime minister who can emerge and create another "moment" or diplomatic opening any time soon.

Dennis Ross was the director for policy planning at the State Department under President George H. Bush and special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton. He is currently the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.