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Shimon Peres -- the Middle East's renowned specialist in terminal peace ailments -- paid a house call to Cairo Sunday to consult with fellow practitioner Hosni Mubarak, and to take the diplomatic pulse of Yasser Arafat, with Israel's foreign minister declaring that Israel had no interest in overseeing the demise of the Palestinian leader or his Authority.

"The atmosphere as it is today is sick and poisoned. We have lost the capacity to listen to one another," Nobel peace laureate Peres said after meeting Mubarak, who has often interceded in past crises to help bring diplomatic hopes back from the dead.

Peres said he and Mubarak had discussed how to create a different atmosphere, dismissing a plethora of foreign and Israeli media reports indicating that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government was on the verge of putting a comatose peace process out of its misery by delivering a military death blow to the Palestinian Authority and its chairman.

"I told the president from the outset that we do not have any interest in attacking the Palestinians," Peres told reporters after his hour-long conversation with Mubarak. "We don't have any intention whatsoever, either of [launching] a ground attack or an attack on Arafat. Arafat in our eyes is the representative of the Palestinians."

Speculation over the Cairo visit centered on Peres's meeting with Arafat in an attempt to shore up a month-long cease-fire thus far honored by both sides mainly in the breach. Both sides maintain they have adhered to the terms of the cease-fire, hammered out by CIA Director George Tenet in a marathon visit following the Tel Aviv suicide bombing that killed a score of young Israelis. However, both sides are adamant that the other has trampled the terms of the truce.

Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv in a November protest over then-prime minister Ehud Barak's military attacks on security targets in Palestinian-ruled areas, and has acted as a public counterweight to what the Arab world has perceived as a pro-Israel bias by the Bush White House. Moreover, Mubarak has sharply criticized Israeli policies, publicly cautioning last week Sharon that if "anything happens to [Arafat], it will inflame world opinion and that of the Arabs."

At the same time, however, Cairo has discreetly maintained lines of communication with the Sharon government. Mubarak is said to have dispatched his chief of intelligence to Israel last week to consider ways to quell the violence.

In what amounted to throwing a fresh shovelful of sand over the grave of Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes, Sharon's cabinet Sunday approved a plan to build new towns in what had been a nature preserve in the western Negev - an area which the Barak government once offered to the Palestinians in return for West Bank areas characterized by dense Jewish settlement.

Although the Palestinians rejected the offer when it was tendered last year, Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi condemned the Sunday cabinet vote as "part of a mad scramble to try to undo anything that the previous government tried to do" -- evidence of "the degree that this government will go to remove any possibility of flexibility, compromise or peace."

The Halutza decision - supported even by ministers of Barak's Labor party - seemed to anger Israeli environmentalists as much as it did Palestinian politicians. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel denounced the decision as one that "will cause enormous environmental and social damage." In ignoring proper planning procedures in destroying one of Israel's increasingly scarce untouched areas, SPNI said: "Instead of helping the Negev, it will cause the region severe and irreversible damage."

In its Sunday editorial, Ha'aretz stresses the importance of direct Israeli-Palestinian contacts in the overall efforts to lessen bloodshed, such as the prime minister's decision to send his son, Omri, late last week to meet the Palestinian leader.

"Sharon's refusal to adopt the options proposed by those itching for war is a reflection of a responsible approach, which takes into account long-term strategic considerations and international implications. Sharon's decision to opt for a renewal of the direct dialogue with the Palestinian leadership, rather than doing away with it altogether, is commendable."

But the test of Sharon's policy - and his ability to ward off calls for all-out conflict - will be whether violence is seen to decrease, an element dependent in no small part on Arafat and on his Authority, as well as diplomatic flexibility from the prime minister, Ha'aretz concludes.

"If it becomes apparent that even this effort did not result in a substantial drop in the extent of the violence and incitement, the degree to which moderate elements can influence government policy will be harmed. On the other hand, if the Palestinian Authority initiates aggressive measures against the extremist organizations, this will assist in convincing the prime minister that he should not satisfy himself with the renewal of direct security-related dialogue, and that he should expand the talks to political issues between the two sides.

"The general impression is that the cease-fire will not last as long as it is not accompanied by steps that appear to head toward an end of the occupation."