Under heavy pressure from the U.S. and the international community, Israel is poised to cut short the IDF operation in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.
It is still unclear exactly when the operation will end, although contact was resumed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through an American mediator on Tuesday evening.
A senior security source told Ha'aretz that he believes that the operation, sparked by the assassination last week of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, could end "within a day or two."
The pressure on Israel included a direct statement by U.S. President George W. Bush to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was in Washington yesterday meeting with top U.S. officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Bush joined a 40-minute meeting between Rice and Peres and told the foreign minister that the U.S. is "very concerned" about the Israeli incursion, and that "there is a delicate balance between security concerns and what is perceived as an Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territories."
"I did express our concern about troops in Palestinian territory and I would hope the Israelis would move their troops as quickly as possible," Bush told reporters after meeting Peres.
In another form of pressure, Sharon is due in Washington on November 11 to speak to leaders of the United Jewish Communities, but no appointment has been set for him yet with any members of the U.S. administration.
The U.S. has been coordinating its pressure on Israel to withdraw - and on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to take action against militia groups and terror cells in the PA - with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, as evidenced yesterday by a meeting between international envoys and Arafat, and later with Israeli officials including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.
Four top diplomats - UN envoy Terje Larsen, EU envoy Miguel Moratinos, U.S. Jerusalem Consul general Ronald Schlicher, and Russian envoy Andrei Vodobin - met with Arafat yesterday, presenting him a list of demands to crack down on militants and restore the cease-fire. Among the demands were the arrest of Ze'evi's assassins, arresting the top 10 terrorists on the list Peres gave Arafat at their Yom Kippur eve meeting, reinstating security coordination with Israel, and closing offices of militant organizations. The four reiterated to Arafat that he can not allow rogue militias to operate in the territories.
Arafat was told by the four men that fulfilling these demands would be helpful to him and to the region. PA Preventive Security boss in the West Bank Jibril Rajoub said yesterday that the PA is still hunting down the assassins, and needs more time to do so.
The four envoys are also meeting with Israeli officials with two main messages: immediate withdrawal from the Palestinian areas and an end to the assassination policy. Inside Israel, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer will replace Schlicher as the U.S. representative for meetings with Israeli leaders.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana joined Moratinos yesterday in separate meetings with Sharon and Ben-Eliezer. Solana gained the impression, sources said, that the current crisis can be resolved. He is convinced that Arafat is making energetic efforts to capture Ze'evi's assassins and stop the top terrorist activists.
In the meetings with Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, Solana was told that Israel has no intention of staying in the Palestinian areas. Solana pressed Israel to re-engage the Palestinians in talks about the cease-fire, even though it had not worked fully in the past. He spoke about local cease-fires, such as the arrangements made for Hebron and Beit Jala a few weeks ago. Solana went to Egypt yesterday and will return to meet with Arafat again.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is also expected to get involved in the effort to get Israeli to withdraw quickly from the West Bank and to get back to cease-fire talks with the Palestinians. Fischer was involved in brokering two previous temporary cease-fires.
Kurtzer meanwhile yesterday told an investors conference in Israel that the U.S. believes that Israel can engage the Palestinians in dialogue "even while defending yourselves." Sharon said after Ze'evi's assassination that there would be no more discussions with the Palestinians until they crack down on their terrorists, and arrest and extradite Ze'evi's assassins. But defense sources appeared to be backing down from the extradition demand yesterday.
On another front, the UN Security Council is considering a Palestinian proposal for a council debate on the situation in the West Bank. Israel is hoping that the U.S. will move to prevent the debate, but U.S. sources in New York said it would depend on the wording of the proposal. Currently, the proposal refers to "concern" over the IDF presence in the PA areas, but it also includes a Palestinian call for international monitors of the cease-fire, something Israel is loathe to accept. The Americans have so far backed the Israeli rejection of international monitors.
No specific timing has yet been set for the IDF withdrawal, but a senior defense source said that the entire operation could be over in "a day or two." Israel wants to end the operation with some form of an achievement in the conflict with the Palestinians, so it will try to arrange a departure from the Palestinian territories with some coordination for the Palestinian Authority to guarantee quiet in those areas Israel departs. Thus, the army is recommending a "rolling withdrawal," starting with Jenin and Nablus, followed by Qalqiliyah, Tul Karm and Bethlehem, where most of the fighting has taken place since the Israeli incursion.
While Israel has not given up its demand for a Palestinian confrontation with the armed groups operating independently of the PA's security services, it does seem to have backed down from the ultimatum for extradition of the Ze'evi assassins. That may be a result of the arrests Israeli troops and the Shin Bet made in recent days during the operation, which the IDF computers dubbed "Dull Blade."
In Washington, Peres heard from Powell and Rice that the U.S. expects Israel to return the situation to the status quo before the assassination of Ze'evi. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was blunt about U.S. concerns - "the more the situation escalates, the more our ability to maintain the coalition against terror with Arab states is eroded," he told Peres.
Bush said that Israeli moves that appear to be leading to war undermine the U.S. focus on its war on terror. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also bluntly rejected efforts comparing Arafat and the PA to Osama bin Laden and Taliban. Fleischer pointed out that in the Middle East, "both parties have agreed to a peace process between them."
Bush emphasized to Peres that the U.S. is applying equal pressure on Arafat to capture the Ze'evi assassins and rein in extremists. In a letter to Arafat that was delivered on Monday by Schlicher, Bush said that only deeds by Arafat to stop the terror would pave the way for a renewal of the negotiations.
Powell told Peres that he has no intention, at this stage, to deliver the much discussed "Powell speech," which was to lay out an American initiative for a Middle East peace process. Powell said that he had planned to make a general statement, but that it is not on the agenda right now. And he promised Peres that Israel would not be surprised by the speech.