Why Sharon is Holding Talks About Talks

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Israeli soldiers pull out of the West Bank town of Tulkarem

Ariel Sharon is hedging his bets. The Israeli prime minister, who leaves for Washington Tuesday, continues to denounce Yasser Arafat as irrelevant and insist there will be no negotiations until Arafat does more to stop Palestinian militants attacking Israelis. Last week he even went so far as to publicly regret not killing Arafat when Israeli forces captured Beirut in 1982. But even amidst the bellicose rhetoric, Sharon is still reaching out, meeting last week with aides of the Palestinian leader he has under virtual house arrest in Ramallah.

Sharon publicly rejects negotiating before the violence has ended. Privately, though, he used the meeting with the Arafat aides — Ahmed Qurei, speaker of the Palestinian legislature; longtime Arafat confidante and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas and PA finance minister Mohammed Rashid — to present his interim political solution to the conflict. He also agreed to regular meetings with the three.

Sharon's slipping numbers

Sharon's talks with Arafat's men were certainly greeted as a turnabout in the Israeli media, but the prime minister has plenty of incentive, domestically and internationally, to open up his options. A poll published by the Israeli daily Maariv last Friday showed Sharon's approval rating down to 48 percent from the 70 percent he'd enjoyed six months ago. Israel's worsening recession has eroded some of his support — three quarters of respondents slammed his handling of the economy — but 54 percent disapproved of his handling of security issues, and 47 percent favored a resumption of talks with the Palestinians.

Sharon's political problems may be underscored by the fact that 150 Israeli army reserve officers have now signed a petition refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, where they say they are forced to uphold a morally untenable occupation. Their numbers may be small, but their action would have been almost unthinkable six months ago as Israelis closed ranks in the face of an intifada viewed even by the Israeli peace camp as a treacherous betrayal by Arafat.

The reservists' statement — and a sympathetic public — triggered memories of the domestic political pressure that, over more than a decade, created overwhelming political pressure in Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. The very fact of the soldiers' action may be further evidence that the political pendulum in Israel that swung dramatically from the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu to the dovish Ehud Barak in 1999, and then back to the hawkish Sharon a year later, has once again reached its apex.

The shadow of Netanyahu

But Sharon is not responding to opinion polls; he's maneuvering to outflank his rivals. Benjamin Netanyahu continues to hover menacingly, ready to resume the mantle of Likud party leadership from Sharon as soon as the party holds a primary. So simply maintaining the present impasse almost certainly seals Sharon's fate at the hands of his own party faithful. Also, his restless foreign minister Shimon Peres — the Oslo architect increasingly desperate to restore political dialogue with the Palestinians — has been running his own talks with Ahmed Qurei in pursuit of a new peace formula.

Domestic considerations aside, Sharon needs to go to Washington with a viable plan. Even as he works to maintain Washington's focus on Israel's security situation, he can't afford to be seen as a man without a plan when discussion inevitably returns to the broader questions of how Israelis and Palestinians might live in peace. Even more so because despite supporting Sharon's efforts to pressure Arafat to act against militants, the Bush administration is also urging both sides to come up with ideas on how to jointly extricate themselves from their current stalemate.

Palestinian pacifism?

Yasser Arafat may have yet to impress anyone with his new "give-peace-a-chance" op-ed page charm offensive, but the pressure on him to rein in the gunmen isn't only foreign. A number of Palestinian political leaders and intellectuals have grown increasingly alarmed at what they characterize as the "militarization" of the intifada. They complain this not only reinforces antidemocratic tendencies in Palestinian political life, but is also a spectacularly bad strategy that has squandered international sympathy for Palestinian street protestors by shifting attention to Israelis suffering the horror of suicide bombings. Israeli reports suggest Arafat is being urged to clamp down on terror attacks and instead encourage non-violent protest actions such as a peaceful march on Jerusalem. Palestinian sources claim that even U.S. mediator General Anthony Zinni indicated to Arafat that this would be a more productive course of action. And a network of Palestinian non-governmental organizations independent of Arafat have recently taken to organizing peaceful demonstrations.

Like the Israeli reserve officers, the Palestinian peaceniks may be something of a fringe group right now — although their perspective probably has a lot more support among the leadership on their side of the divide than that of their Israeli counterparts. And even if the PA was tempted to resort now to the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, the men in charge of the militias and terrorist cells on the ground who actually carry out the suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks have a way of imposing their own ideas.

Still, the new independent initiatives among both Israelis and Palestinians suggest a mounting impatience with the efforts of the politicians on all sides to resolve the crisis. For Sharon, that requires that even as he keeps the heat on Arafat, he also shows himself capable of talking to the other side.

—With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem