CIA chief George J. Tenet worked Thursday to restart Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and strengthen a cease-fire that both sides warn could collapse at any moment as violence continued to flare in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Tenet's separate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat yielded an agreement to have their security officials meet with him today in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The renewal of some form of security cooperation is seen as vital if the cease-fire, which Arafat declared Saturday after a suicide bomber killed himself and 20 other people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub, has any chance of holding.
But diplomatic efforts that kicked into high gear after the June 1 bombing seemed tinged with desperation. Israeli officials remain publicly, bitterly skeptical that the cease-fire secured from Arafat with the help of the European Union is anything more than a ploy to avoid massive military retaliation.
Indeed, the cease-fire seemed to be hanging by a thread Thursday. In the West Bank village of Sawiya, residents were still reeling from an attack the day before by scores of Jewish settlers. The settlers rampaged through the village and nearby Lubban to avenge the critical injury of a 5-month-old Israeli boy who was riding in a car that was stoned by Palestinians.
"It was a thing so frightening," said Omar Salman, 36, standing in front of the greenhouse that settlers torched and trashed on his property. "I locked my wife and our four children in the bathroom and hid with my parents in the kitchen."
Before the outbreak of fighting in September, Salman said, settlers from nearby Shiloh and Eli used to buy olive seedlings and flowers from the Palestinian nursery. This time, the settlers overturned trays of plants, smashed pots, burned the greenhouse and threatened to kill Salman if he intervened, he said.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer condemned the rampage Thursday. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote of the increased fear among security officials that the hard-pressed settlers, under attack on the roads of the West Bank and Gaza for months, might increasingly resort to vigilante action that could ignite another round of fighting.
At the same time, Israel's security forces remain on high alert, fearing another suicide bombing inside Israel. In the West Bank and Gaza, the cease-fire has drastically reduced--but not stopped--the shootings, bombings and mortar attacks by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers and settlers.
With Sharon demanding more from Arafat, Tenet has the hard task of persuading the Palestinian leader to take the politically risky step of cracking down on Islamic militants, regarded by many Palestinians as the heroes of their revolt against Israeli military rule.
Israel has given the Palestinian Authority a list of 34 militants it wants arrested immediately as a show of good faith, a demand that senior Palestinian officials publicly rejected before Tenet's arrival.
Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath insisted Thursday that Arafat made a strategic decision to declare a cease-fire after the bombing because it was clear that the carnage "threatened the partnership with a major part of the Israeli public that is still committed to a two-state solution" despite months of fighting.
But Shaath said Tenet's mission will fail if he "only presents yet another shopping list to the Palestinians" of militants to arrest and security steps to take "without the Israelis having to do anything."
Tenet will also be looking to Sharon to offer some gesture to the Palestinians that will help Arafat sell this cease-fire to a suspicious Palestinian public and gunmen still spoiling for a fight.
Unless Israel eases its closure of the West Bank and Gaza, freezes construction of Israeli settlements or makes other moves to ease daily life for the Palestinians, Arafat will be unable to maintain support for the cease-fire, Shaath said.
Tenet's mediation was described as crucial by one senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on the eve of the spy chief's arrival.
"We are in a very delicate situation, a very fragile situation, and the coming two to three days will tell whether we are on the right track, whether we can activate the Mitchell process and whether we can move from this violent situation back to sanity," said the official, referring to a report released last month by an international panel headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
The Bush administration has said that if the cease-fire holds, U.S. special envoy William Burns will try to work out a timetable with the two sides for implementing the Mitchell panel's recommendations. The report provided a blueprint for stopping the fighting and resuming peace talks.