Is Arafat Ready to Deal?

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Arafat says that he favors an immediate declaration of a ceasefire

Yasser Arafat says he's ready to seek an end to the fighting. In the aftermath of Wednesday's shocking terror attack in Israel, the Palestinian leader said he was prepared to implement a cease-fire plan "without conditions." Israelis are skeptical — the offer was made in remarks to journalists, and not as an official proposal to the Israeli government. And Arafat has made such pronouncements before, most notably after last year's suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv disco.

Still, the stakes are high enough this time to think that a cease-fire could happen. Wednesday's gruesome terror attack that killed 21 people and wounded more than 100 at a seder in Netanya brought swift condemnation from the U.S. and left Palestinians bracing for a forceful Israeli response. And if Arafat is not able to implement a cease-fire, an escalation of violence, which now seems imminent, may sound the death knell for General Anthony Zinni's diplomatic mission.

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The U.S. mediation effort had been in trouble even before the Netanya carnage. Arafat's empty chair at Wednesday's Arab League summit signaled the Bush administration's failure to persuade Sharon to let the Palestinian leader travel to Beirut to lend his support to a Saudi proposal to normalize relations with Israel once it withdraws to its 1967 borders. And Arafat has been in no hurry either to take new action to rein in militants or sign on to a cease-fire plan his aides see as weighted in favor of the Israelis.

Zinni on Tuesday had called off three-way meetings until further notice, saying the gulf between the Israeli and Palestinian positions remained too large. And the latest attack makes that gap likely to grow despite the U.S. envoy's continued meetings with both sides to press for concessions.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have predicted all along that Zinni's cease-fire effort would fail, and unless their pessimism proves unfounded the Bush administration's dilemma will become all the more acute in the coming weeks by the likelihood of an outbreak of violence more intense than the one that forced President Bush to send his envoy in the first place. Israeli military officials have told the Washington Post that they're planning a "comprehensive" assault on Palestinian towns and refugee camps if no cease-fire is achieved, a military action broader and deeper in scope than the recent one in which some 150 Palestinians were killed over a two-week period. The objective of such an offensive would be to kill or arrest militants and search for weapons, in the hope of curbing Palestinian attacks that have persisted even in the course of the latest truce talks.

There's plenty of reason to expect escalation from Palestinian side, too, with militants of Arafat's Fatah organization likely to launch a new wave of attacks in the hope of intensifying Israel's political and diplomatic crisis and of sending the message that Israel cannot resolve the crisis militarily. Once Zinni leaves, or perhaps even before, both Israelis and Palestinians would likely feel compelled to underscore their own negotiating positions with a show of force. And that could leave U.S. diplomacy stranded as the bullets start to fly again — but with disengagement now carrying an even higher diplomatic cost.

The depth of the problem facing the Bush administration was underscored by the ease with which both sides managed to sidestep American demands. First Arafat simply ignored the conditions set for a meeting with Dick Cheney, and then Sharon simply ignored Washington's wishes on Arafat's travel plans. Zinni's mission, of course, had always been a long shot. There was nothing to suggest conditions for a truce were more conducive than they'd been during his aborted mission last December — indeed, it was the further deterioration of the situation, rather than its improvement, that forced the Bush administration to send him back. What had changed was that the crisis in the West Bank and Gaza had clearly begun to interfere with Washington's efforts to court Arab support against Saddam Hussein.

It's unlikely that Washington expected instant results from Zinni. Sending him to the region was in part an attempt to signal a reengagement with the crisis in the face of Arab criticism that the Bush administration's hands-off approach had allowed the situation to dangerously deteriorate. But between reengagement and results there remains an epic gap.

Zinni brought nothing new in his toolkit. Instead, his mission was a kind of third-time-lucky attempt to activate the cease-fire plan formulated last June by CIA director George Tenet, and sullenly adopted, but never implemented, by both sides. The Tenet plan, though, was simply a rough choreography — whose sequences and precise requirements have consumed most of the talks hosted by Zinni — of the prelude to implementing the Mitchell Report. And the Mitchell recommendations are squarely based entirely on the premise of helping the two sides find a way back to the final status negotiations that began at Camp David and ended at Taba, two weeks before Ariel Sharon's election. Senator Mitchell and his team had been sent to find a way to reattach the wheels to the Barak-Arafat peace effort. But 15 months later, General Zinni is dealing with an entirely different Israeli leadership, a considerably altered Palestinian political dynamic and a peace process that has gone stone cold. That left him a lonely Marine in a no-man's land where neither side is keen to venture. In the past, the Bush administration could afford to walk away. This time, though, the cost of disengaging may be too high.