[an error occurred while processing this directive]Wednesday's meeting between Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat to discuss restoring the failed cease-fire was less significant for what it achieved (not much) than for the fact that it happened at all. Although the meeting was arranged before the September 11 attacks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had immediately afterward ordered his foreign minister to cancel the talks. Sharon branded Arafat "our Bin Laden" and ratcheted up Israeli military activity in the West Bank and Gaza, mounting 16 incursions into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in the week following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Sharon's change of heart allowing the meeting to go ahead and avoiding Israeli-initiated military action against the Palestinians came after a constant stream of phone calls from the Bush administration urging him to allow the talks to proceed.
Sharon has little faith in negotiations with Arafat, and may have been inclined to believe that the September 11 attacks in the U.S. would generate Western sympathy for a more aggressive Israeli strategy hence his Arafat-Bin Laden comparison. The prime minister is under mounting domestic political pressure from his old nemesis, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to make an end run around the State Department and White House and appeal directly to Congress and the U.S. public to support a more aggressive campaign against Arafat's administration. Israeli political analysts believe it was Netanyahu's challenge for the leadership of the Likud party that drove Sharon to make his ill-fated visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount a year ago, which became the pretext for the Palestinian intifada.
But while Netanyahu has the luxury of being outside of government, Sharon has to balance domestic concerns with those of Israel's all-important international backer and Washington is plainly insisting that the Israelis negotiate with the Palestinian Authority rather than shut it down. That faces Sharon with a dilemma, since the levels of force he has applied until now have failed to end the intifada, and increasing the level of force is diplomatically untenable. But dialogue, in the event that it can achieve a cease-fire, will force Sharon into the uncomfortable position of having to contemplate political negotiations with Arafat.
Arafat fears his eclipse
The Palestinian leader may be even more dependent on a resumption of dialogue than his Israeli counterparts, precisely because of the toll taken by the intifada on his domestic and international political standing. Arafat may have made more visits to the Clinton White House than any other foreign leader, but the onset of the intifada essentially made him persona non grata in Washington, and suicide bombing attacks emanating from areas under his control have sharply weakened his diplomatic support in the West. On the Palestinian street, the uprising has seen the political center of gravity shift away from Arafat and towards the radical Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and more importantly to the rank and file militants of his own Fatah organization who are increasingly openly at odds with their leader. Continuation of the current impasse is untenable for Arafat, because it inevitably results in his political eclipse by more militant forces. Those militants have announced that they will fight on, and a recent opinion poll found that 85 percent of Palestinians favor continuing the intifada. Plainly, renewed moves towards peace will be a tough sell for Arafat indeed, while his men have begun acting to stop suicide bombers entering Israel, Palestinian officials say they have not undertaken to stop attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. But failure to restore political dialogue leaves the aging Arafat to simply see out his days as an increasingly titular leader of a people whose destiny he has little hand in shaping.
On Bush's desk
Where the Bush administration had previously kept its distance from the deteriorating situation, the needs of the antiterrorism coalition have made Arafat's and Sharon's dilemmas Washington's, too. In his first meeting with an Arab head of state since the September 11 attacks, President Bush received a strong pledge of support from Jordan's King Abdullah, but also a passionate plea for Washington to do more to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab allies on whom the U.S. will rely heavily in the intelligence war on Bin laden face strong domestic resistance against working too closely with the U.S. because of the perception among their citizens that Washington bears some responsibility for the plight of ordinary Palestinians and Iraqis. Just as it was for the first Bush administration during the Gulf War, pressing a reluctant Israeli government to negotiate with the Palestinians may be the price of Arab support.
The Bush administration had hoped to avoid the pitfalls of President Clinton's aggressive Middle East matchmaking, arguing that such efforts were bound to fail as long as the parties themselves remain reluctant to conclude a peace deal. But left to their own devices the two sides have shown scant ability to stabilize the situation. Now, one year into the intifada, the overriding priority of the anti-terrorism coalition may force the Bush administration to start knocking heads together.