CIA Chief Secures a Mideast Truce

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Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and CIA Director George Tenet

CIA director George Tenet may have brokered the beginnings of an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, but only because both sides reluctantly embraced it as a diplomatic necessity. Realizing that he'd made a colossal PR blunder earlier in the day by nixing Tenet's proposals, Yasser Arafat announced late Tuesday that, like Israel, he would accept the deal — but with plenty of reservations and outright rejection of some clauses. And that was quick thinking by the Palestinian leader, after his earlier rejection had prompted Tenet to blame Arafat for the failure of his peace mission, and plan his departure.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had earlier endorsed Tenet's plan, but with plenty of reservations of his own. "I can't say I am enthusiastic about the plan, but on the whole we can work and move forward," Sharon told an audience of Israeli businessmen Tuesday. Having risen in Western public opinion because of Israel's restraint following the suicide bomb in a Tel Aviv disco 11 days ago, the Israeli leader was content to feel pressure from his right flank in order to retain the diplomatic high ground. And having blundered, initially, Arafat added his approval in order to stay in the game.

Back to you, George

In agreeing while challenging the plan's specifics, Arafat has created a huge headache for the Tenet. After all, he has two parties somewhat reluctantly accepting a deal and sure to offer radically different interpretations of its requirements. Its implementation will require an active, thankless and quite possibly even futile refereeing effort on the part of the U.S. — exactly the scenario the Bush administration had hoped to avoid when it came into office vowing not to repeat Bill Clinton's mistakes and insisting that the U.S. could not impose peace when the parties were unwilling. The Middle East is seldom that simple.

The Palestinians essentially want the Mitchell Report proposals implemented as a package, while Tenet is proposing breaking up the steps, adding new requirements and recommending cooling off periods between specific actions. The Palestinians insist that the Israeli blockade of their territories be lifted and a settlement freeze announced at the same time as they take steps to clamp down on violence; Tenet is proposing, in line with Israeli demands, that actions against violence come first. Of these, Arafat has the most problem with the requirement that his administration arrest hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters. His cease-fire call is not particularly popular on the Palestinian streets, and Arafat and his men are reluctant to face the political consequences of forcing a showdown with the radical Islamist groups in order to satisfy Israeli and U.S. demands. At the same time, Arafat and his inner circle have no alternative but to go along with the Americans, because their strategy remains dependent on a return to the negotiating table — a scenario highly improbable without U.S. support.

Before Tenet's arrival, each side had declared a unilateral cease-fire. The CIA director's mission has been to merge those into a signed agreement, which could stabilize the conflict, restore security cooperation and create a basis for further political talks. So far, he's managed to get the two sides to somewhat reluctantly agree with him. Getting them to agree with each other on cease-fire terms may yet take some doing.