A glimmer of hope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2002, 12:00am

Ariel Sharon's first meeting with Palestinian officials since taking office is the most positive step the Israeli Prime Minister could have taken towards creating conditions for peace. Until now, he has used guns and rockets to do his talking in the conflict; that he is prepared to use a meeting room instead can only be applauded.

Mr Sharon is still firm in his resolve not to meet Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He has called Mr Arafat a liar, irrelevant and has fired missiles at his offices and personal airstrip. It is unlikely the two will meet.

But, although details of Wednesday's secret meetings are still scanty, the fact they took place has opened doors in the stalled peace process that seemed firmly closed.

Israel has sidelined Mr Arafat and while Mr Sharon remains prime minister, it is unlikely that situation will change. Mr Arafat has expressed willingness to talk, but Mr Sharon's renowned hardline stance towards the Palestinian issue is clear: the 1993 Oslo accord granting an independent Palestinian state is void.

Israel's response to increasing Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians has been to unleash military force. Each suicide bombing has been used as a reason to clamp down harder on Mr Arafat, virtually imprisoning him in his own territory. At Christmas, he was prevented from attending festivities in Bethlehem, and his communications and transport networks have been severely limited by the air strikes.

The violence has not stopped because of the talks. It is unlikely to rapidly subside in the light of the hatred that has built up and boiled over in the past 18 months. The divisions, especially among the Palestinians, run deep. But for Israel, admitting the meeting took place is a positive indicator that its policy of recent months does not offer a long-term solution. It seems to have rightly decided that retaliation is having no effect and that mediation is the only option.

The traditional negotiator between the foes, the United States, has been unable to get the sides to talk about their differences and no other nation has been willing to take the initiative. American envoys have been in and out of the region in recent weeks and it is unclear what role they played in bridging the gap. But Washington should seize the initiative and ensure the momentum continues.

Mr Sharon must also keep talking. He and his negotiators hold the key and now that they have realised the militaristic option is not a harbinger of peace, they must continue to share views, instead of violence and intolerance.