Mideast diplomats hope truce has ripple effect

Sides push for meeting between Peres, Arafat

U.S. absence criticized


JERUSALEM - With an Israeli-Palestinian truce holding on Jerusalem's southern fringe, diplomatic efforts were made yesterday to see whether calm could be extended elsewhere to finally bring the conflict of the past year under control.

The goal was to set up a meeting, possibly next week, between the Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to discuss how to work out a true cease-fire instead of one that has existed in name only for more than two months.

Aides to Peres were reported yesterday to have urged Egypt to use its influence to press Arafat to attend such a meeting. Officials of the European Union, stepping in to fill what they consider a void created by the Bush administration's relative hands-off policy in the conflict, have also sought to bring the fighting parties together.

In the past, the Europeans complained that the United States had too much of a monopoly when it came to Middle East diplomacy. Now some of them say the administration is staying too far above the fray. On Thursday, the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, told the newspaper Figaro that Washington was "acting like Pontius Pilate," washing its hands of responsibility in the crisis.

At this point, it is not clear whether any amount of outside pressure can keep the Israelis and Palestinians from continuing to pummel each other. There is no sign that either is ready to give up.

Still, some here were encouraged by an agreement Thursday that halted Palestinian firing on an Israeli neighborhood, Gilo, in return for Israel's withdrawal of tanks from Beit Jala, a neighboring West Bank town south of Jerusalem that is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. To stop the shooting at Gilo, Israeli forces took over parts of Beit Jala for two days, the army's longest stay in a Palestinian-ruled area.

The prevailing theory among optimists - not a dominant group here these days - is that if a truce can work in Gilo and Beit Jala, perhaps it can spread. Peres has floated the idea of a cease-fire that is put into effect in stages, starting in places of relative calm and then moving on to chronic hot spots such as Hebron in the West Bank and Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

"If we can build several islands of stability, maybe they can come together to have an impact to solve the problem," said Nimrod Barkan, a senior Foreign Ministry adviser.

But no one on either side was harboring illusions about the difficult process that lay ahead. Palestinian officials expressed doubts that Israel's foreign minister would have "a mandate" from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make the kinds of concessions they seek, including an easing of restrictions that make it extremely difficult for most Palestinians to move around the West Bank and Gaza.

And Peres has lately dampened expectations that simply meeting with Arafat can produce much. He was quoted in the Israeli news media yesterday as telling people, "Arafat is no doubt not a Swiss clock for which you get a three-year guarantee upon purchase."

Driving home the point of how much mutual hostility must first be overcome, fighting erupted yesterday, most strongly in Hebron, where Israeli soldiers and Palestinians exchanged fire.

Several parts of Israel, including Jerusalem, were put on high alert for possible suicide bombings and other attacks.

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