After a flurry of late summer peacemaking, the Middle East lapsed into a strange autumnal quiescence. This week, the only sign of diplomatic life was an Israeli minister's proposal that an electrified fence be erected to separate Jews and Arabs, at a probable cost of tens of millions of dollars.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat revived the long-flagging peace negotiations in early September with an interim deal that renewed Israeli pledges to pull out of more West Bank land and laid down the goal of a comprehensive agreement to end decades of strife between their peoples by next fall. Since then, Barak has named no chief negotiator and Arafat has lately been globe-trotting in Southeast Asia. While the two leaders are to meet briefly next week in Oslo to inaugurate the comprehensive talks, neither seems to be in any particular rush.
Instead, Barak has summoned his ministers and senior advisers to discuss his goal of effecting a physical, economic and legal divorce from the Palestinians.
On the Israeli-Syrian front, there is, if anything, even less visible movement. The initial burst of optimism that accompanied Barak's election last spring has dissipated, the two sides disagree on a basic formula for resuming talks, and venomous remarks are replacing the early bilateral attempt at nice-nice.
So on the eve of what is widely seen as the most fateful year of decision-making in a century of Middle East history, silence reigns.
"Under such deadlines, one might have expected hysteria, feverish negotiation into the wee hours of the night, nerve-racking political activity," Hemi Shalev, a political analyst, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "Instead it is as though everything is on a Mexican siesta: Nothing is happening, nobody is moving, nobody is making waves."
Some suspect that something must be up, but that it is taking place in secret. That is plausible: The 1993 Oslo agreement, which revolutionized peacemaking in the Middle East, was the product of months of negotiations so clandestine that none but a handful of Israeli, Palestinian and Norwegian officials knew what was going on. Israeli and Palestinian officials will only say vaguely that contacts between the two sides are going on at all levels.
"It's a mystery for me," said Ghassan Khatib, a leading Palestinian analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. "Probably there is something going on that we don't know about."
Others suggest that for the time being at least, a flurry of diplomacy and peacemaking is neither in Barak's nor in Arafat's interest.
Barak, goes the theory, is happy with the February 2000 deadline he and Arafat set to shape an accord on the toughest Middle East issues: Israel's borders and the borders of a putative Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, the conflicting claims to Jerusalem, water rights and Palestinian refugees. Rather than deploying teams of negotiators, the Israeli premier may prefer simply to draft a brief blueprint with Arafat directly.
Arafat, an often blistering advocate for Palestinians' rights to self-determination and statehood, has been uncharacteristically restrained, perhaps in tune with Barak's low-key and hopeful rhetoric.
His response to Israeli plans to accelerate the expansion of Jewish West Bank settlements--even as the two sides prepare to negotiate the future of those communities--has been particularly telling. Although the Palestinian leader has been critical, he has not resorted to street demonstrations, and has not spoken of a crisis.
The apparent stall in peacemaking may suit him if it means coaxing the United States into intervening to give Barak a shove. Wary of Israel's vast advantages at the negotiating table, Arafat's strategy has been to invoke the West's influence in other recent talks.
"Either it's another reflection of weakness in the nature of the Palestinian leadership, or they have no hope of achieving anything so they don't insist on it," said Khatib.
Said David Makovsky, executive director of the Jerusalem Post: "There's no audible heartbeat to this peace process in any public sense. It's not because neither of them cares. Each one thinks there's a different vehicle to get the deal he wants."
What is odd and discordant about the apparent stagnation is that the leaders themselves injected the urgency of deadlines into the process.
In last month's deal in Sharm el-Sheik, Barak and Arafat agreed to set the rough outlines of an omnibus peace deal by next February and reach a comprehensive settlement by next September. Barak, in a campaign promise he has since repeated, pledged to withdraw all Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by next summer, preferably in a deal with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon.
Yet as the clock ticks, no one seems to stir.
On the Israeli-Syrian track, Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad are engaged in a diplomatic staring contest, and neither seems inclined to blink.
Barak has lately suggested he may be willing to remove Israeli troops from southern Lebanon next summer even without a peace deal with Syria. That would be risky for Assad: It would leave him without the Golan Heights, which Israel captured and has occupied since 1967, and without Israeli casualties in southern Lebanon to use as leverage with Barak.
Assad insists talks with Israel should resume where he says they left off four years ago: with a pledge from the Israelis that they are willing to concede a complete return of the Golan to Syrian control.
"We're still stuck on the entrance fee for negotiations," said a senior Israeli official. "We haven't engaged yet."
The Israeli-Palestinian track is a different matter. Bargaining there must begin soon.
Barak has worked hard to repair the ambiance between the two sides, which former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with his stream of bitter recriminations, left in tatters. In the last six weeks, Barak has dined privately with Arafat, freed some 350 Palestinian prisoners held on security charges and ordered the closure of a small but symbolically significant number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He has agreed to open a long-delayed safe-passage corridor for Palestinians to travel freely between places under control of Arafat's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Monday.
These efforts to carry out pledges made in peace agreements make a difference. Safe passage, for instance, was promised five years ago but has never been implemented. When it is, it could touch the lives of thousands of Palestinians and give them a sense of liberty and connectedness.
Barak's aides acknowledge they still must prepare Israeli public opinion for a broad peace agreement. They insist they have learned a lesson from Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister and Barak's mentor, who sprung the Oslo deal on the public and suffered the consequences in months of political turmoil.
In practice, say Israeli officials, that could mean dealing separately--and quietly--with emotional issues like Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their rightful capital, or the fate of several million Palestinian refugees. Yet even on the seemingly less tangled questions, such as how much West Bank land to turn over to the Palestinians for the probable future state, the sides seem far apart. Israeli officials say privately they could cede two-thirds of the territory; the Palestinians insist 85 percent is a bare minimum.
"The problem is that the Israelis' maximum offer does not meet our minimum requirements," a senior Palestinian official said.
Aware of the difficulties of reaching agreement on those questions, Israeli officials have begun hinting at a phased, partial agreement rather than a sweeping "final" deal.
"The whole history of the peace process is about phasing the phases and compromising the compromises," said Khatib, the Palestinian analyst. "There is one disadvantage in this: that we will not reach a final peace agreement."
Ultimately, both sides are aware of the dangers of stagnation. On Wednesday, they got a reminder when Nelson Mandela, the retired South African leader, addressed the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"Our men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward," said Mandela, who is revered by Palestinians as an icon of liberation. "Then, if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence."
The Palestinian lawmakers erupted in concussive applause for a full two minutes.
CAPTION: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, top left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, top right, have made little progress recently in peace talks. Two Israeli soldiers, center, stand guard at West Bank outpost of Havat Maon. Barak has ordered some settlements closed in a mostly symbolic move.
CAPTION: An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian driver's documents as he enters Israel. Israel is to open a free route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip today.