Under U.S. Glare and With Gunfire Within Earshot, Arafat and Peres Finally Meet in Truce Bid

Moving to avoid the wrath of a Washington on war footing, Ariel Sharon at long last gives green light to high-level Israeli-Palestinian truce talks, fanning long-dormant embers of hope for an end to a bitter year of conflict.

Opting for the boiling rage of fellow Israeli hawks over the wrath of a Washington on war footing, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave his blessing at long last to truce talks between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, fanning long-dormant embers of hope for an end to a bitter year of conflict.

Sharon, ending months of delays and cancellations, gave the final green light to the meeting during a huddle with Peres at the prime minister's private ranch in the western Negev, not far from the site of the Arafat talks, held at the Palestinian Authority's Dahaniya airport in southern Gaza.

The effort to convene the talks had become something of a Holy Grail for the Bush administration, keen to clear the diplomatic decks for the much broader task of convincing Muslim states to join its budding coalition for a declared war on elusive world terrorism in the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Sharon was in consequence the focus of withering White House pressure to approve the meeting, anathema to Israeli rightists who have argued that the talks represented a propaganda victory for Arafat at a time when Israel has been expending every effort to portray the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization as a terror warlord in peacemaker's clothing.

As if to lend urgency - or a foretaste of futility - to the discussions, gunshots sounded a counterpoint to the talks, as a Palestinian youth was killed nearby in clashes between IDF soldiers and stone-throwing protesters.

In marked contrast with the warmth and good humor of their meetings in years past, Peres and Arafat, Nobel Peace Prize laureates for their role in the now-aborted Oslo peace process, appeared tense and wary Wednesday as they shook hands for photographers.

After two hours of closed-door discussions between the leaders and their lieutentants, Peres and Arafat stayed out of the limelight while Palestinian cabinet minister and senior peace negotiator Saeb Erekat read a joint communique in which the sides recommitted themselves to security cooperation and to American-brokered truce accords hammered out earlier in the 12 long months of fighting.

They agreed to work for implementation of the Mitchell recommendations and Tenet understandings, aimed at quelling the violence and paving a path back to the negotiating table. Israel also undertook to begin easing closures over Palestinian population centers and to re-deploy its forces.

Unsurprisingly, the meeting had Israeli hawks' blood boiling even before it took place. "If the meeting takes place, I will feel humiliated and disgraced not by Arafat, but by a member of my own government, who is working tirelessly in order to undermine the foundations of the unity [coalition]," said Public Security Minister Uzi Landau of Sharon's Likud party, taking a swipe at Peres that reached, by extension, the prime minister himself.

Landau spoke after Palestinian militants who had tunneled next to an IDF strongpoint detonated a bomb that ripped down a wall in the position, lightly injuring three soldiers. The attack occurred just hours before Peres's motorcade was to enter Gaza from a crossing point not far away.

Likud MK Ze'ev Boim said Sharon approved the Wednesday meeting only because his foreign minister had held a pistol to the prime minister's temple. He said Israel should learn from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who called off a scheduled Tuesday meeting with Arafat.

"I don't understand why we don't take a lesson from the example of Syria's president, who said to [Arafat] 'Listen, buddy, I know you, I know who you are, you're not going to pull the wool over my eyes, don't try to disguise yourself' - and he didn't let him come to Damascus."

Finding himself in the unaccustomed position of defending a decision by Sharon, MK Ahmed Tibi, a former senior advisor to Arafat, said Arafat's security forces had gone into overdrive to calm the violence that has made any progress toward peace seem doomed to swift and bloody failure.

"In the last few days, even Sharon's office, the prime minister himself, the defense minister, concede that the Palestinian Authority is making enormous efforts in order to bring calm on the ground," Tibi told Army Radio.

According to Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar, the Israeli right had been hoping to "turn Arafat into Osama bin Laden's terrorist twin" in Western eyes, and thus bury the Mitchell report - and its recommendations for an Israeli freeze on settlement activity - "under the ruins of the Twin Towers."

But a Washington consumed with an international campaign of unprecedented intricacy and potential peril can little afford a fresh round of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation just now, especially with the Muslim world closely watching this weekend's first anniversary of the events that sparked the uprising - Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, and the site of subsequent unrest that spawned the intifada.

"The Israeli diplomatic effort has been concentrating recently on trying to get across one solitary message - 'terror is terror.' The aim is to halt a rapidly developing distinction in the international community between Palestinian terrorism against Israel and that of the organizations that attacked America," writes Ha'aretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn in Wednesday's paper.

"Every Israeli player from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon down to diplomats and public relations staff keeps reiterating this message. In the first days after the terror attacks on the U.S., Israel hoped the international community would identify with its struggle against terror."

Benn remarks that although Israel is finding the fact difficult to swallow, America now needs the support of Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, all of whom aid Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, to help form its anti-terror coalition.

"Israel is far away from America's focus of interest at the moment, and the Americans want only to put a check by the Arafat-Peres meeting and remove this distraction from their 'to do list,' Benn concludes. In the meanwhile, "Other problems can wait."