'Arafat May Be Looking for a Way Out'

  • Share
  • Read Later

Palestinian leader Arafat shakes hands with U.S. Middle East envoy Burns

TIME.com: Are there grounds for optimism that the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian security talks could lead to a cease-fire?

Matt Rees: The optimistic element is that they're having them at all. The thing that the Israelis are concerned about is whether Arafat will actually go through with a renewal of security cooperation between the two sides, or whether he's going to demand another pointless international summit first. Palestinian sources say he is trying to get a summit, but may be thinking twice because the French government last week showed no interest in the proposal. What Arafat wants is another summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh to discuss implementing the Mitchell Report, and how to go beyond it. He wants to get the issue onto the international stage and out of the hands of the Americans. But the Israelis won't have it, the Americans don't want to know, and now even the French — who may have been his best bet — have told him they're not interested.

In some ways, Arafat is desperate to end the intifada because it's not getting him any closer to his goals. But there is pessimism among senior Palestinians that Arafat is driving them to another disaster. They thought they'd gone beyond that, but now they fear it may be happening again.

The renewal of talks presents a challenge for a U.S. administration that had hoped to stay out of President Clinton's Mideast peacemaking quagmire. After all, you have the Palestinians saying they'll stop the intifada if they're given political concessions on issues like the settlements, while the Israelis are saying they want the violence stopped before there can be any talk of political concessions. Bridging that gap may require more of the Clinton-era cajoling than the Bush standoffishness…

Yes, and Israelis are wondering just what the difference is between Dennis Ross, who served as President Clinton's envoy, and Bush envoy William Burns. It's not clear if they're offering anything different, except that Ross had an engaged president on the other end of the line. Still, it doesn't hurt that Bush is avoiding becoming involved in the way that Clinton did, because that forces people here to deal with Burns rather than going over his head, demanding to meet at the White House and so on. That those options are not on offer now may be for the best.

The Palestinians are also covering themselves by saying it's a lot easier for the Israelis to stop their end of the violence than for the Palestinians, because the Israelis simply have to issue an order to their military. "On our side it's a whole people that's up in arms," Palestinian leader Nabil Shaath said over the weekend, implying that it may take weeks to bring the violence under control even if they choose to. For Israel, that may be the reality of being an occupier — that you find yourself facing a whole people — but Shaath's position is not going to fly. The way the Israelis see it, they put their faith in the Palestinian Authority as a way of dealing with the Palestinian people, and they're not going to accept a situation where Israel stops what it considers defensive actions while Palestinians continue to attack Israelis and the Palestinian Authority says it's beyond their capability to stop.

But on the other hand, Arafat is under pressure from rival Palestinian groups and fears losing control. Palestinian sources tell us that he's actually struggling to find a way out right now, because if he ever wants to be the leader of a Palestinian state he has to get out of this situation. The combination of terror attacks, as well as recent disasters such as the building that collapsed in Jerusalem last week, followed by a crowd crush at a soccer match and forest fires set by arsonists all around Jerusalem may be breaking the Israelis' spirit, but that's not going to make them more likely to give Arafat what he wants. It's going to make them more reluctant. Arafat's advisers are aware of this, which may be why he's looking for a way out.