Mideast: Cease-Fire May be the Easy Part

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An Israeli army armed personel carrier makes its way out of Bethlehem

Violence and diplomacy often go together in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But the problem facing U.S. General Anthony Zinni's Middle East mediation efforts is the extent to which violence has become a brutal form of negotiation. Vice President Dick Cheney joined Zinni in Israel Monday in an urgent effort to arrange a cease-fire, and Israel's military withdrawal overnight from recently reoccupied Palestinian areas suggested the mission was making progress. But while the U.S. and Israel might be content with simply avoiding a repeat of the bloodbath of the past two weeks, Yasser Arafat needs more — a resumption of fast-track negotiations for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. And unlikely as it may have seemed a month ago, Arafat now holds the strategic cards.

Two weeks Ariel Sharon launched a massive military offensive he hoped would pummel the Palestinians into submission. The tactic backfired: Not only did the assault fail to stop Palestinian attacks deep inside Israel, but the heavy Palestinian death toll also finally forced the U.S. to resume its stalled mediation efforts. That mediation prompted Israel's Monday retreat — Palestinians had insisted there was nothing to discuss while Israeli troops remained in Palestinian Authority territory.

Although Cheney appears set to maintain the Bush administration's distance from Arafat, the very fact that the Palestinian leader was able to set terms for joining an American cease-fire initiative is an indication of how quickly the political balance in the region has shifted. Arafat has not only survived Sharon's siege, he has begun to prosper politically as the U.S. effort to rally Arab support against Saddam Hussein has forced the Bush administration to restrain Israel. Such external pressure may even help the beleaguered Sharon by giving him the political cover to retreat from a military escalation whose failure to alter the situation has only fueled challenges from both his left and right flanks.

Still, the restoration of calm for its own sake may not be sufficient incentive for Arafat — or the tens of thousands of Palestinian militants on the ground who have waged the intifada — to enforce a cease-fire. Such incentive would only come, say Palestinian officials (and European mediators and Israeli peacemakers such as foreign minister Shimon Peres) with the restoration of negotiations over Palestinian statehood. While Sharon and his supporters balk at resuming such talks, arguing that this would simply reward violence, Peres and others say that it would create a necessary incentive for Arafat to keep the peace.

The U.S. has nodded in that direction by sponsoring a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state. The White House is also backing Saudi efforts to get the Arab League to agree to normalize relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders. While Arafat has rushed to calibrate his own positions with the Saudi plan, Sharon has publicly rejected it. Having opposed the Oslo accords from the get-go, the prospect of giving up all or most of the West Bank and Gaza is anathema to the prime minister.

The logic of the current cease-fire effort, prescribed by the Tenet and Mitchell reports, is to bring the parties quickly back to the negotiating table they abandoned last January. But if Arafat and Ehud Barak couldn't reach a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it takes a leap of the imagination to visualize an Arafat-Sharon deal. And yet without one, there's little chance that any truce emerging in the coming days will amount to much more than a time out.