Why Sharon is Talking About Talks

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Israeli soldiers break into a house in the Tulkarm refugee camp

President Bush's decision to send General Anthony Zinni back to the Middle East is good news for Yasser Arafat, bad news (with a silver lining) for Ariel Sharon and a portent of doom for Saddam Hussein. The move came at the end of the bloodiest week of a 17-month intifada that has so far claimed more than 1,000 Palestinian lives and some 300 Israelis. More than 100 people died just this week as each side sought to ratchet up military pressure to force the other to submit.

The Bush administration had once hoped that isolating Arafat and backing Sharon's intensified crackdown would force the Palestinian leader to put an end to attacks on Israelis. That policy has plainly failed, and that failure became intolerable as Washington found its efforts to gather Arab support for military action against Saddam Hussein hurt by anger over Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The primary beneficiary of the White House decision to reengage is certainly Arafat. The Palestinian leader appears to have weathered his siege in Ramallah and forced both the U.S. and Sharon to resume dialogue with him even as Palestinian guns are blazing. Sharon — who last December declared Arafat "irrelevant" and this week vowed that no negotiations would be held until Israeli military action had cowed the Palestinians into submission — on Friday agreed to negotiate a cease-fire with Arafat's lieutenants even while violence continues. That's a dramatic reversal of his longstanding refusal to negotiate under fire, and of his insistence that seven days of calm must precede any talks. "I thought we could reach a period of respite before a cease-fire," Sharon told Israelis. "But this is a war situation we are experiencing now and negotiations for a cease-fire will take place under fire."

Sharon's handling of the intifada has turned Israeli public opinion sharply against him, with right-wingers demanding more decisive action to destroy Arafat's administration and opponents on the left calling for a return to negotiations. Sharon heads an increasingly precarious unity government, whose collapse would force an election in which the hot favorite to succeed Sharon is Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who has been stalking Sharon from the right.

Netanyahu and others on the right may be tempted to seize on Sharon's offer of cease-fire talks as a sign of weakness or confusion, but Sharon has a cast-iron political alibi — his latest offer is precisely what the Bush administration has asked for. Washington had long urged Sharon to drop his "seven days of calm" requirement. And in Israeli politics, the express wishes of a pro-Israel White House remain a red line that's seldom crossed.

The Palestinian Authority welcomes the prospect of Zinni's return — and Arafat's de facto rehabilitation. But the prospect of a renewed cease-fire may present new problems for Arafat. The Palestinian leader's domestic popularity has surged amid the recent violence, which has blurred differences between various Palestinian factions. A cease-fire could cause those differences to return to the forefront.

While both sides will warmly welcome Zinni when he arrives in the region late next week, few give him much chance of brokering a new cease-fire that sticks. The current violence remains carefully calibrated by two sides who know they'll inevitably face each other over the negotiating table again. But neither side appears to have yet exhausted its capacity for upping the ante. What has changed is the Bush administration's diplomatic priorities, given its focus on going after Saddam Hussein. As Vice President Cheney heads out to recruit support for action against Iraq, an administration pilloried by Arab states for passivity in the face of the Middle East meltdown has new incentive to do whatever it can to douse the fires.