TEL AVIV, Israel, July 9 (UPI) -- Earlier this month, tanks and armored-personnel carriers churned through the sand dunes of the northern Gaza Strip, their treads crushing the soft soil as they crossed the electronic fence back into Israel.
When they were all across, an officer closed the gate and turned the latch. The scene was reminiscent of another pullback, three years ago, when the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon. Then, however, the officer padlocked the gate. There was a sense of finality to Israel's departure. Not so this time.
At their weekly Sunday meeting, half the Israeli Cabinet was on the verge of dealing a blow to peace efforts. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked his ministers to approve criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners. The release would significantly strengthen the stature of the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
"A stronger Palestinian Authority could act against terror more effectively," Sharon said.
Half the cabinet voted against Sharon and the motion fell, but the ministers realized that might end the cease-fire and devised a face-saving sentence that was added to the text. Three ministers then swung round to vote with Sharon.
The right-wing ministers have pressed a warning light.
After 1,000 days of the intifada, more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, 815 Israelis killed, and thousands wounded, the parties are beginning to move along the "road map" for peace.
The plan - presented by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- is an imposed document. Successive Israeli governments have been apprehensive of such intervention. However, the unending intifada, which began in September 2000, led to the international initiative.
Its roots are in U.S. President George Bush's vision for peace, outlined in June 2002. Israeli officials were so happy with that speech they claimed parenthood to parts of it. An aide to the prime minister told United Press International the speech contained many elements Sharon had presented in talks with Bush.
Ten months later, on April 30, Israel received the "road map" with changes it found distasteful.
Attempts to persuade the U.S. administration to amend the document failed. Israel then decided to "accept the steps set out" in that plan but linked it to 14 "comments" it said it would raise in due course.
It gave the list to the United States but never officially published it.
Several considerations led Israel to accept the "road map":
-- Sharon promised his people peace and security. He is already in his second term of office, the vast majority of the Israeli fatalities occurred under his watch, and he wants to deliver on his pre-election pledges.
-- The Israelis are tired of the intifada. The outgoing head of the National Security Council, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, last week noted Israel proved its military, intelligence and technological superiority and had demonstrated its capability to escalate pressure until it becomes unbearable "even for the (Palestinian) terror organizations." However, there are situations that military power cannot resolve.
-- The Israeli army reoccupied all Palestinian West Bank cities except Jericho and destroyed much of the Palestinian economy. Poverty has increased and people are unable to travel. Yet that has not brought peace to Israel.
-- Suicide bombers pose the greatest danger. Although they account for 0.6 percent of all Palestinian attacks, they are responsible for about half of Israel's casualties, said Avraham Diechter, head of the Shabak security service.
-- The shrinking economy also made Israelis yearn for peace. The country's gross domestic product dropped 3.8 percent in 2002 and the Bank of Israel blamed the intifada for it. Bank studies suggest the intifada cost Israel $4 billion. Income has shrunk and the Central Bureau of Statistics says unemployment soared to 10.3 percent, close to the highest figure in Israel's history.
The glimmer of hope has already given a boost to the economy. The Tel Aviv stock market, which dropped by 24.8 percent in 2002, rose 6.2 percent on news of the apparent breakthrough.
-- Perhaps the most important consideration is Israel's desire to maintain its close ties with the United States. The United States is perceived as Israel's only true friend and American support is one of Israel's sources of power.
"The U.S. position, after 9-11, came very close to Israel's basic position," said Professor Yitzhak Ben-Israel who heads Tel Aviv University's Center for International Studies. "... Sharon understood that (the friendship of U.S. President Gorge) Bush is a national asset, (he) coordinates with him (Bush) and doesn't quarrel with him."
Moreover, Bush's view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is more right wing than those of most Israelis, Ben-Israel noted in an interview.
Now Sharon doesn't have much of a choice but to go on with the "road map," unless the Palestinians give him an excuse to break away.
Bush is breathing down his neck.
At last month's Aqaba, Jordan, summit, Bush promised to monitor the implementation of the "road map." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice both visited Israel in late June and high profile monitors are due to arrive this week.
Israel is not racing to implement the "road map."
Sharon is supposed to "immediately" dismantle an estimated 50 outposts, settlements established without full government authorization, erected in the West Bank since he became prime minister in March 2001. Israel also has to freeze all other settlement activity, including "natural growth," the "road map" says.
The army evacuated a few sites on the eve of Powell's and Rice's visits, but failed to remove new sites that settlers established. Sharon even advised his ministers to continue building in the West Bank town of Ariel, without fanfare.
A Western diplomat also said the process could fail if Israel allows the establishment of more phantom settlements.
Shlomo Brom, who headed the army's Strategic Planning Division and is now a Senior Research Associate at the Jaffee Center, pointed out Sharon has talked of a long-term interim agreement, not a permanent one, he said.
That could be done without evacuating settlements, except perhaps isolated ones.
"It's clear to me there can be no permanent agreement without an expansive evacuation of settlements ... He will continue negotiations as long as possible," Brom said.
Under pressure from the families of Palestinians in Israeli custody, Abu Mazen is pressing for the release of the prisoners. Israel holds an estimated 6,000 prisoners and at the criteria set last week may release some 350, none of who is a member of parties such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that oppose the Palestinian leader. That might change in anticipated negotiations, however.
Abu Mazen is under pressure to have them freed, too.
A Western diplomat recalled Sharon had told Powell Israel would free 400 prisoners. The diplomat said he anticipated problems if Israel released only administrative detainees and criminals.
ARAFAT AND THE MILITANT GROUPS
The number of Palestinian attacks, planned attacks and incitement has dropped. Officers now meet in Gaza, usually informally, and cooperation is extensive, a Western diplomat noted.
Scattered attacks continue but Mohammad Dahlan, the Palestinian minister of State for Security Affairs, evidently convinced Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to let him provide security.
Mofaz told reporters he believed Dahlan's "intentions," but a lot needs to be done "to meet commitments."
Israel believes there is one problem, however. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
As Israeli specialists see it, Arafat is a major part of the problem. He is the man who really wields power in the Palestinian Authority.
"In recent weeks, Arafat tried to harm the process in various ways," Mofaz said.
According to Diechter, Arafat's influence prevents Abu Mazen from taking some of the measures he would have liked to take.
There are other obstacles, too.
One of the dangers is that a renegade group, or an individual, would launch a deadly attack initiating a chain reaction that would blow the process into pieces.
Gangs affiliated with al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Arafat's Fatah movement, have continued attacks in the West Bank using Iranian money, military and security sources said.
"Abu Mazen and Dahlan cannot control the (Fatah) Tanzim (militants)," said Col. (ret.) Shalom Harari, a former Defense Ministry adviser on Arab Affairs who is now with the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism. "Arafat and (Marwan) Barghouti can."
Barghouti is in an Israeli prison and, for now, the government does not intend to release him.
Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's commitment to a temporary cease-fire are also problematic, Israeli specialists say. They, and Western diplomats, are concerned the groups are using the lull to reorganize.
"They believe they have a right to break it (the cease-fire) the moment it doesn't serve them," former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit said.
The Islamic movements are already more popular in Gaza than Fatah.
"If Hamas will control the Palestinian leadership, it will open the way for more terror, violence and no solution," an aide to Sharon told United Press International.
Diechter said the Palestinian Authority has 24,000 security men in the Gaza Strip and, Hamas knows that "in a civil war ...it stands no chance." He implied Hamas would not fight.
Harari countered Hamas may have only 500 to 1,000 armed men but, "When 50,000 to 60,000 people come out of the mosques for a demonstration, it's a problem."
"There will be Palestinian provocations," said Brom. "The question is whether we could overcome our passions when there will be a Palestinian provocation and an operational opportunity."
Previous attempts to arrive at a cease-fire have failed because of Israel targeted killings of Palestinian militants, Brom said.
There are also fears that actions of Jewish extremists might provoke a wave of Palestinian violence that could kill the process.
Diechter said the next test was in two or three weeks when the Palestinian Authority starts disarming militants in the Gaza Strip though Hamas has said it will kept its weapons. There would be no transfer of authority to the Palestinians in the West Bank unless that happens, he added.
The defense establishment is split, however.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, military chief of General Staff, said he did not expect the Palestinian Authority to forcibly collect all weapons.
"Our demand of the authority is that they prevent movement of armed activists in the area," Yaalon said.
Still, the Israelis maintain they won't hand over control of the West Bank to the Palestinians until they take adequate steps.
"We are ready to transfer more cities but it will be done gradually, step by step, in accordance with the Palestinian preparedness (to assume responsibility) and the outcome of the security steps they have taken in areas where they already are responsible," Mofaz said Sunday.
The fragile agreement could fail if terror attacks continue; if there are no confidence-building measures; if Iran, which backs Hamas, succeeds in foiling the initiative; or because of a basic lack of confidence, Halevy, the former Mossad chief, predicted.
"The most important asset the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority have lost (during the intifada) is trust," Diechter said. Restoring that confidence "would require a very long road."
Few know Sharon's intentions. He has a reputation for being suspicious of all but a close circle around him. He has refused to detail his ideas, saying any concession he offers prematurely would be the starting point for the next round of talks.
"When he engages in political planning he holds the cards close to his chest," an aide to the prime minister said.
There have been verbal promises.
Last Tuesday, Sharon said he would make "every effort to achieve a political settlement ... even if we are required to make painful compromises...." He did not elaborate.
Shortly after he became prime minister, Sharon told foreign correspondents there was no other job he could aspire to. He now wants to conclude a peace deal.
In order to reach a permanent agreement, Sharon will have to drop his decades-old demands for miles-wide security strips on the western side of the West Bank, and along the Jordan River. The settlements, his baby, are spread all over the West Bank and hamper the establishment of a viable contiguous Palestinian state. Years ago, he bought an apartment in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. He rarely goes there, but would he give up part of Israel's "eternal capital" for an agreement?
Knesset Member Colette Avital, of the opposition Labor Party, told UPI she believes Sharon wants to follow part of the "road map," and perhaps reach its second stage that calls for "an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders."
"Until (then) ... he (will) show a nice face to the Americans," she said.
(Next: the Palestinians in Jordan.)