The 67 Lines or Sharon's?

A cease-fire has yet to be cemented, yet the argument over where to draw the lines of the political horizon to be offered to the Palestinians has already begun. What will the peace process be based on after the fighting?

A cease-fire has yet to be cemented, yet the argument over where to draw the lines of the political horizon to be offered to the Palestinians has already begun. What will the peace process be based on after the fighting? The answers will determine who won the Al-Aqsa Intifada and who sacrificed hundreds of their own people so as to end up in the same place. The issue will be at the center of Israel's diplomatic dialogue in the coming weeks and has the potential to become grounds for a divorce between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his two Labor Party partners, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

The opening positions are known. Israel proposes that the negotiations be based on UN Security Council Resolution 242. The ambiguous formulations - "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the territories" to "secure and recognized boundaries" - leave enough room for the flexibility upon which the national unity government relies.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, aren't ready for any vague formulations. They want an a priori understanding that the borders of the future Palestinian state be based on the June 4, 1967, lines. The Saudi initiative poses a similar stance, albeit including a readiness for minor border corrections and exchanges of territory.

For most Israelis, the argument might be perceived as an abstract theological dispute. For the politicians, however, it is much more. The prime minister has embarked on a diplomatic campaign against a new UN Security Council resolution that would replace 242 as the basis for the renewal of the peace process. The essence of Sharon's response to the Saudi initiative is that he is ready to meet with the Saudis and their representatives, as long as their proposals do not receive a stamp of approval from the Security Council.

Sharon knows that if the Green line were to be embedded in a UN resolution or named as the basis for negotiations, his plans for a long-term interim agreement that would preserve the settlements and allow Israel to maintain control over the Jordan Valley and the slopes of Samaria's hills would be delegitimized. He is proposing to the Palestinians that they establish their state between security zones, for a transitional period of 5-7 years. By then, Israel will have a different prime minister, and Sharon could go down in the history books as not having made any concessions to the Arabs.

The Labor Party's view is more complex. In its final days, the government of former prime minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians recognition of the June 4 lines. Yossi Beilin openly supports this. Shlomo Ben-Ami proposes embedding the Clinton Plan in a UN resolution that would leave Israel with about 4-6 percent of the West Bank, thereby circumventing negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres and Ben-Eliezer voted in the government in favor of the Clinton Plan, but they have been taking cover in ambiguity since joining the Sharon government.

The dispute over the border delayed completion of the Peres-Abu Ala agreement. Their conversations led to a "Sharon bypass" whereby the United States and European Union would deposit letters with Yasser Arafat stating that the commonly-acceptable interpretation of Resolution 242 is an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 borders.

Peres has denied asking for such letters. Others who have heard him have a different impression. Either way, during his recent visits to Paris and Madrid, Peres said "not now" to his hosts. He asked them to express their views on the borders only after an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In other words, he wants to use the international support as a future card to play against both Arafat and Sharon.

Peres tries to placate the Palestinians by telling them that the peace agreements with both Egypt and Jordan refer to 242, and that Israel withdrew to the final millimeter in both cases. But turning this precedent into a precondition for talks will break up the negotiations - and the national unity government. Nonetheless, this is the foreign minister's current position.

In another month or two, or six, when the talks advance, Peres could change sides and use international pressure to force Sharon into the toughest decision of his life - to withdraw to the Green Line or to go to elections while appearing as if he is rejecting peace.