Light - and Fire - at the End of the Tunnel

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat are reminiscent of two drivers racing towards each other on a narrow road, at the edge of a steep cliff.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat are reminiscent of two drivers racing towards each other on a narrow road, at the edge of a steep cliff. Each of them is certain that he has the right of way, but doesn't trust the driver coming toward him. Nevertheless, both insist that they are right, all the way to the crash.

The prime minister is absolutely right: Negotiations should not be renewed until the Palestinians observe a cease-fire. The bitter experience of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former prime minister Ehud Barak shows that we cannot carry on negotiations as though there were no terror, and fight terror as though there were no negotiations. This approach has given peace a bad name among the Israelis, as well as convincing the Palestinians that terrorists are the ones who will force Israel's hand at the negotiating table.

Arafat is right, too: There can be no cease-fire until Israel renews the negotiations. Eight years after the signing of the Oslo agreement, it is hard to find a Palestinian in the territories who believes that the Sharon-Ze'evi government will simply volunteer to dismantle even one isolated settlement, and to end the occupation. [Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze'evi is known for his uncompromising right-wing stance.]

This debate, on the question of what comes first - a cease-fire, or the beginning of negotiations - has already caused the death of many civilians. There is no sign that Sharon will relinquish his demand for seven days free from violence and incitement. There is also no sign that Arafat will withdraw his demand to first send observers into the territories, and then to freeze the construction in the settlements. Both leaders enjoy wide public support for perpetuating the violent struggle.

Give the Palestinians a reason to believe that Sharon will keep his promise, that if they return to the negotiating table he will demonstrate territorial generosity. It's true that the prime minister promised that when the time comes, he will not hesitate to make "painful concessions." But last week, Sharon mentioned that the pain he is willing to endure is only that of a "long-term interim settlement." This was after he said in an interview with Ha'aretz Magazine (April 15, 2001) that he does not intend to move even Kfar Darom [an isolated Jewish settlement] from the heart of the Gaza Strip.

In other words, Arafat now has to convince his people that they have not shed their blood in vain. Here, he will say, "eight years after the Oslo agreement, the Israelis are finally ready to hand the Palestinian majority in the territories an important achievement - a long-term interim agreement." How many hours will he survive after he explains that "10 months after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the time has come to stop the struggle for the liberation of the occupied territories, to put on ice the promise to found a Palestinian state with Jerusalem al-Quds as its capital, and to join Baruch Marzel's block association. [Marzel, a Hebron settler, was formerly the leader of the ultranationalist Kach party.]

Give the Israelis a reason to believe that Arafat will keep his promise, that if Sharon stops construction in the settlements and returns to the negotiations, the PA will return the leaders of the military wing of Hamas to prison, and will give instructions to stop the broadcasts of incitement against Israel. How many times has Arafat broken his promise to make an all-out effort to arrest those who send the suicide bombers? Sharon would have to commit political suicide to inform the public that he has changed his mind about the principle of not conducting negotiations under fire, and that he is relying on Arafat's word that the guns will be silent on the day when the politicians begin to talk.

Without basic trust between the leaders, and given the political limitations of each of them, Arafat has to extinguish the fire at one end of the tunnel. At the same time, Sharon will have to signal the light at the other end. The prime minister must adopt the program of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and declare publicly that if the PA stops the Intifada, Israel will, by the end of the year, honor all the agreements it has signed, and will decide on a date for a permanent status agreement, whose central feature will be the immediate founding of a Palestinian state.

That will not be a prize for violence, but a belated reward for ending it. There is of course no guarantee that Arafat will keep his part of the deal, but if the prime minister rejects this idea, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner continues to defend it, they will not fulfill their obligation to stop before reaching the abyss.