Capping days of stormy negotiations, CIA chief George J. Tenet won begrudging agreement from Palestinian and Israeli leaders on a cease-fire plan aimed at averting descent into a wider war, U.S. officials announced early today.
The mutual endorsement marked the most significant commitment yet to ending more than eight months of bloodshed, the deadliest fighting in this region in years. Earlier cease-fire attempts, however, have collapsed quickly.
Tenet threatened to suspend the talks Tuesday night, then held a last-ditch meeting with the main holdout, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. As the session dragged on into the early hours today, a U.S. Embassy official in Jerusalem said Arafat finally joined the Israeli government in accepting the spy chief's "work plan."
A Palestinian official confirmed the commitment. "We have accepted the American document. Implementation will begin tomorrow," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo told reporters, Reuters said.
Arafat reportedly continued to object to one provision: the creation of buffer zones between Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians fear that Israel will use the measure to seize additional Palestinian land.
As Arafat and Tenet met, Palestinian gunmen killed a Greek monk traveling in a car near an Israeli settlement just east of Jerusalem, the Israeli army said. Palestinian demonstrators also marched through Ramallah, a short distance from Arafat's headquarters, to demand that he resist American pressure to stop the battle against Israeli occupation.
Tenet's mediation effort was part of a campaign of urgent shuttle diplomacy undertaken in the last week by numerous international figures alarmed at the deteriorating situation here. The stakes are high. Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, deputy defense minister and daughter of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, warned of the disaster that would follow if Tenet left the region empty-handed: "We can no doubt expect a very significant escalation of the shooting and the warfare between the two sides," she said Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, Israel said it had accepted the Tenet guidelines, albeit with reservations, shifting the onus to the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians had earlier rejected a key provision--that they immediately arrest Islamic militants implicated by Israel in terrorist attacks--but said they wanted to continue examining the proposals.
It was not immediately clear how or why Arafat, in finally endorsing the Tenet plan, decided that he could proceed with the arrests. If he does so, it will be a politically perilous step. The activities of Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants, including suicide bombings, enjoy wide approval among many ordinary Palestinians.
Earlier Tuesday, Col. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, told Voice of Palestine radio that "we took the expression 'arrest of Hamas members' out of our lexicon long ago."
But later, Nabil Amr, a minister in Arafat's Cabinet, said the leadership was prepared to accept the Tenet plan "in principle." Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel was accepting the plan "as is."
Both sides disagreed vehemently on a timetable for taking the steps required of them, and U.S. officials indicated early today that details of the timing still had to be worked out.
Most of the details of the plan have been published here or revealed by Israeli and Palestinian sources.
Among the provisions: Israel agreed to withdraw its forces to the lines it held before the clashes erupted in September and to begin lifting a crippling blockade of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel will begin taking these steps within the next 48 hours to one week, kicking off a six-week "cooling-off" period, state radio reported.
Israel had insisted on delaying any discussion of political measures until after the cooling-off period, and said the clock on that six-week time frame would restart every time there was an incident of violence.
U.S. officials saw this condition as a way to defer indefinitely any serious political steps, such as the freezing of illegal Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza.
In addition to arresting militants, the Palestinian leadership is required to confiscate mortars and other illegal weapons and reduce incitement in Palestinian media.
With Israel on Tuesday trumpeting its acceptance of Tenet's overtures, the Palestinian leadership found itself in a bind. It did not want to be blamed for thwarting a truce nor did it wish to risk a major confrontation with Washington, Palestinian officials said. "Arafat does not want the whole thing to break down," one Palestinian source said.
At the same time, Arafat faced widespread opposition in the street. Even as he met with Tenet, hundreds of Palestinians, led by Fatah militia commander Marwan Barghouti, marched through Ramallah demanding that the uprising continue and that their leader resist American pressure.
A fragile and incomplete cease-fire has been in place for more than a week. In the wake of a June 1 attack at a Tel Aviv disco that left a suicide bomber and 20 young people dead, Arafat declared a cease-fire in an effort to avert massive Israeli retaliation. And last month, Sharon declared a unilateral cease-fire. Today's agreement represents a bilateral cessation of hostilities.
Violence has been reduced but not eliminated. And with extremists on both sides spoiling for a bigger fight, it remained to be seen whether Tenet's cease-fire blueprint will calm the region for long.
The plan is the first step toward implementing the recommendations of a commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). The recommendations, generally accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians, though with interpretive nuances, include a halt to violence and a freeze on Jewish settlement construction.
"I decided to accept the program laid out by Mr. Tenet and see if it will lead to a reduction in hostilities," Sharon said Tuesday in a speech to the Israeli Chambers of Commerce. "I can't say I am enthusiastic about the plan, but on the whole we can work and move forward."
Israeli officials were keen to use Palestinian resistance to the Tenet plan as a way to further isolate Arafat. Top Israeli officials have embarked on a campaign to demonize Arafat in recent days: Sharon reportedly told an American envoy that Arafat was "Israel's Osama bin Laden," and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has twice declared that Arafat has completed his "historical role."
"This [the cease-fire] is a test for Arafat and no one else," Gissin said. "Either he's a leader of his nation or he's what many Israelis believe him to be, a leader of a terrorist organization."