Ariel Sharon Blinked First This Week in Yet Another Altercation With Shimon Peres

Peres chalked up a victory: his position influenced Sharon - regarding both a dialogue with Arafat as well as the brake on the planned IDF operation in the Bethlehem area. It was, perhaps, a short-term victory, writes Uzi Benziman.

Shimon Peres has been making the point, of late, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel cannot accept a situation in which its relations with the Palestinians will be dependent on the suicidal inclinations of some fanatic Palestinian. In other words, the foreign minister is saying that making a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority contingent on a total cease-fire is to play into the hands of the next suicide bomber.

That is one of the arguments Peres is putting forward in an attempt to persuade Sharon to forgo his rigid demand for a week of full security quiet before he is willing to enter into political negotiations.

In an internal consultation held not long ago in Jerusalem, one of the participants asked the foreign minister bluntly whether he himself was not in the same trap in 1996, when the massive Hamas terrorist attacks eventually toppled him. Did he think then, too, that restraint was the order of the day and that talks should be held with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as though nothing had happened? The fact is that Peres called Arafat and hurled such potent threats at him that he brought about a cessation of the terrorist operations.

This week Peres was able to chalk up a victory: his position influenced Ariel Sharon - both as regards a dialogue with Arafat and as regards the brake put on the planned military operation in the Bethlehem area. It was, perhaps a short-term victory (that depends on the behavior of the Palestinians), but there is no ignoring the fact that Sharon blinked first.

After the cabinet meeting, in which Peres's anger and frustration were more than evident, the prime minister behaved as though he had recoiled from hurling the relations between them into a state of crisis. He found a way to conciliate Peres, gave him a longer rope to try and bring Arafat to the negotiating table, and even toned down his statements about the duration of Israel's control of Orient House in East Jerusalem. Still, these achievements did not make Peres a happy person: the confrontation with the Palestinians looked this week as though it were moving toward a huge explosion.

The basic assessment of Israeli intelligence has not changed: Arafat doesn't want to calm the conflict. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said this week in closed forums that he is increasingly convinced that the armed clash will continue for a lengthy period and that in the light of the positions taken by Arafat, there is no possibility of resolving the issues in dispute between the two sides by means of a political dialogue.

The more knowledgeable Ben-Eliezer becomes about Arafat's worldview, the more readily he concludes (this, at any rate is the message that arises from what he says in internal discussions) that the Palestinian leader is committed to the realization of the Palestinian refugees' right of return on a scale that no Israeli government will be able to accept. According to this version, Arafat, in talks with foreign statesmen, quotes the assurances he gave to his brethren, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, to return them to their homes, and asserts that he is incapable of retracting what he promised.

Peres, though, has a different situation appraisal. In two talks he held with Sharon, at the end of last week and on Sunday of this week, he explained to the prime minister why he cannot accept the prohibition on holding talks with top-ranking Palestinian officials as long as the shooting continues.

Apart from formal reasons, which have to do with the formulation of the conclusions in the Mitchell report and the document brokered by CIA chief George Tenet, which, in Peres's opinion, allow him to hold talks with Arafat - under the rubric of talks to achieve a cease-fire - he explained to Sharon that he cannot operate in a rhetorical environment that blasts Arafat and thwarts any possibility of renewing the diplomatic process with him. Peres was referring to the prime minister's blunt descriptions of the Palestinian leader and to other declarations he has made, which reflect a conception that excludes from the outset any possibility of achieving understanding with the Palestinians.

Sharon in fact is committing himself to public positions that are liable to prove embarrassing for him. He was quoted as saying that the Israeli seizure of Orient House, in East Jerusalem, and of the governor's house in the town of Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem, are irreversible steps; but hardly had a day passed before the official Israeli position was moderated: it now spoke of returning Orient House within six months and drew a distinction between restoring property to its owners and stopping political activity in that property. As for the buildings in Abu Dis, there were hints that in the political negotiations, when and if they begin, those properties will be negotiable too.

Sharon's declaration that not another shot will be fired at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo may also prove to be made of sand, as is the impression he created that the seizure of Orient House is a model that could also be applied elsewhere. At least one member of the cabinet concluded from this that one of the next sites for capture will be the Abu Sneina neighborhood in Hebron, which overlooks the Jewish settlement in the city. Is the prime minister capable of meeting the expectations he is generating?