Why Arafat's in No Hurry

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A Palestinian gunman crouches during a lull in fighting with Israeli troops

Against the backdrop of yet another Palestinian suicide bombing (this time, a failed attempt outside Jerusalem), U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni continues work to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian versions of a cease-fire plan. It doesn't appear to be getting any narrower. The Palestinians are in no hurry to close a deal — they even called off a new round of truce talks scheduled for Monday night. Yasser Arafat and his aides appear to believe that the U.S. and Ariel Sharon currently need a cease-fire a lot more than he does, and he's going to set a substantial political price on that truce. Palestinian leaders believe the current cease-fire effort has been spurred by two related factors: the political crisis in Israel caused by the recent upsurge of violence, and the fact that this violence may be the biggest obstacle to the Bush administration winning Arab support against Saddam Hussein. And their perceived advantage may be underscored by the Bush administration's pressure on Sharon to allow Arafat to travel to the Arab League summit in Beirut. Today Palestinian leaders said Arafat would not attend.

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The immediate sticking points in General Zinni's cease-fire effort concern the who-goes-first choreography. Israel wants decisive and widespread action by Arafat against Palestinian militants — including mass arrests and disarming of militias — in exchange for a gradual easing of the blockade of Palestinian towns. Not until you leave, say the Palestinians, who set the price of cracking down as an immediate Israeli withdrawal to positions occupied before the September 2000 intifada began and a speedy resumption of negotiations over Palestinian statehood.

The discrepancy highlights the different political requirements of the leaders on each side. A truce is desirable as an end in itself for Sharon, whose popularity has plummeted because of his inability to restore security. But his Palestinian counterparts see little value in a cease-fire for its own sake; its only value to them is as a stepping stone to negotiating Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon needs to show progress on security; Arafat needs to show progress on ending the occupation.

There's nothing new in this standoff over truce terms. The Mitchell Report, on which the current U.S. cease-fire efforts are partly based, noted: "Israeli leaders do not wish to be perceived as 'rewarding violence.' Palestinian leaders do not wish to be perceived as 'rewarding occupation.' Nevertheless, if the cycle of violence is to be broken and the search for peace resumed, there needs to be a new bilateral relationship incorporating both security cooperation and negotiations."

But such consensus is even more elusive now than it was a year ago when the Mitchelll Report landed on President Bush's desk. Sharon is averse to restarting political talks, both because of the current violence and because he has traditionally opposed the Oslo Accord that would serve, according to Mitchell, as the basis for further negotiations.

The Palestinian leadership, for its part, appears less responsive than it was a year ago to a U.S. administration that, in Palestinian eyes, has allied itself substantially with Sharon. Arafat's domestic political standing today may be more dependent on the efforts of the Fatah-linked militias than on any gains won through diplomacy or his relationship with Washington. To close down the intifada now, Arafat and his aides say they require a resumption of political talks. But whereas Sharon has previously made clear that his idea of the final boundaries of a Palestinian state are considerably less than those offered by his predecessor at the Camp David and Taba talks, Arafat may be expecting at least Taba, if not more.

Neither side makes any secret of the fact that they'd rather not be dealing with the leaders on the other side — and that's a grim portent for the prospects of the Mitchell proposals, whose starting premise is that "each party again be willing to regard the other as a partner." Instead, Sharon and Arafat have spent the past three months engaged in efforts to remove the other from his seat of power.

The Palestinians go-slow approach to General Zinni's mission shows just how much they believe time is on their side. They're not stalling as much as dragging their feet and turning away from symbolic carrots dangled by the U.S. and Sharon. Both sides appear to expect the current cease-fire effort to fail, even if it gets off the ground. Neither wants to be blamed for such a failure. But the Palestinian posture suggests confidence that their position will be strengthened — and Sharon's weakened — by the upsurge in violence that would likely follow a failed truce.