Gilad Sher is a top-level black belt in karate, a tall, lean, rangy man who projects an unnerving, hyper-focused, preternatural calm.
Those are, he says, handy skills--not only in the international martial arts championships he has won with the Israeli national team but also in peace talks with the Palestinians, which he has led for the Israelis since late July.
"You plan several moves ahead always, so you can correspond and respond to the surprising moves of the other party," said Sher, 46, a lawyer and former journalist, after a 48-hour negotiation marathon the other night. "Then you've got to be very, very, very calm--never get angry, never seek vengeance, never get excited about anything."
Beneath the soaring rhetoric and public hurrahs that accompanied the closing of the latest Middle East deal on Friday night, there was a sense among those closest to the bargaining that despite this week's progress, it is a little too early to get excited about the chances for comprehensive peace.
American and regional officials hailed the deal signed in the wee hours Sunday morning at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh as a breakthrough to a new era in regional peacemaking. And while this accord may eventually live up to that billing, it bears remembering that it is the fourth attempt in as many years to nudge the peace process toward further Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank.
Still, if the name of the game in the peace process is wading through the process and arriving at the peace, the current agreement represents a step ahead. And it is a feather in the cap of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who took office just two months ago determined to negotiate almost precisely this sort of deal.
Now, for the first time in nearly a year, Israel is prepared to begin withdrawing its troops from several hundred square miles of the West Bank, probably starting Sept. 13. The land will be transferred to Palestinian civilian control. Even before that, Israel will release 200 Palestinian prisoners from its jails. And further prisoner releases and Israeli troop pullbacks are expected this fall.
Even more significantly, a one-year clock is now ticking toward September 2000, the deadline by which Palestinians and Israelis are supposed to draw up their permanent borders and solve disputes that have festered for up to a half-century: the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their rightful capital, and the fate of Jewish settlements and several million Palestinian refugees.
As a way station on the path to permanent peace, the sides agreed to draft a blueprint defining the shape of a final deal by mid-February.
But in setting out so rigid a timetable for settling so many old scores, these old adversaries may have written themselves too ambitious a script, some analysts say.
In the original 1993 Oslo peace agreement, the bargaining over a permanent Palestinian settlement was supposed to begin in May 1996 and last three years--and even that was regarded as insufficient by some experts. The talks on a permanent settlement in 1996 opened with a grand ceremony--and were promptly put on ice. Now, after endless delays, the talks are set to start in earnest in the coming days or weeks--and the two sides have left themselves a mere 12 months to conclude them.
"I cannot imagine them agreeing on final issues in one year," said Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian research organization. "Actually I don't think that it's possible, no matter how long it takes, except if they have new approaches--for example, dividing the final issues into stages or agreeing to delay some aspects of it for years.
"I don't know the Palestinian leader who can compromise over Jerusalem, and neither do I know the Israeli who can compromise over Jerusalem."
One possible solution may be for the sides to agree to disagree for now--to remove the most contentious issues from the table and move ahead on what seems possible.
Khatib said he has heard Israelis suggesting a deal under which the Jewish state would accept the establishment of a Palestinian state and would hand over considerable swaths of West Bank land to make it possible. In return, Israel may ask Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to postpone a decision on the fate of Jerusalem.
"It is possible we'll have a so-called final status agreement that singles out one or two issues and says, 'These we'll agree to disagree on,' " said Yossi Alpher, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee.
But it is doubtful that Arafat, already weakened politically by the non-progress in peacemaking for the past three years, can afford to take the issue of Jerusalem, or refugees, off the table any time soon. Many of his supporters would see that as a sellout. To his opponents in militant Palestinian groups, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement group Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings against Israel, any concession by Arafat on Jerusalem would be regarded as nothing less than treason.
These are the sorts of daunting questions the two sides are now bound to address if they are to lay out a blueprint for permanent peace by mid-February, as the new deal specifies. If they cannot resolve them, this latest agreement may start to gather dust, much as several of its predecessors have.
CAPTION: Gilad Sher, chief negotiator for Israel, said of the peace talks: "You plan several moves ahead always."