Although Israel launched a new incursion into Hebron Monday in response to a weekend attack on a nearby Israeli settlement, the big news in the region was Sharon backing down under U.S. pressure to lift the siege on Yasser Arafat's headquarters. In the face of what an Israeli official called "brutal" pressure from President Bush, Israel's cabinet on Sunday accepted a deal in which the siege of Ramallah would be lifted in exchange for the Palestinian Authority's acceptance of U.S. and British supervision over the imprisonment in a PA jail of six men wanted by Israel. Israel had previously insisted that the six be handed over.
The Ramallah deal was denounced as a sellout by the Israeli right, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made the call to oust Arafat the centerpiece of his campaign to win re-election. Sharon, too, had wanted to expel the Palestinian leader, but was unable to cross a line drawn by Washington, mindful of the danger that such a move could dramatically destabilize the region.
In the end, Sharon found himself confounded by the fact that his West Bank offensive lacked a plausible political endgame geopolitical realities precluded the U.S. from endorsing a course of action that would leave Israel with no credible Palestinian or Arab interlocutors. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has threatened to derail the administration's wider war on terrorism, and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah made clear to President Bush last week that U.S. interests in the region would be critically undermined by the continuation of Sharon's offensive. Monday, Abdullah warmly applauded Bush's Ramallah intervention.
While Sharon had relied on the short-term security situation rather than any long-term political vision to make the case for his offensive, the Saudis took President Bush a comprehensive eight-point plan to calm the violence and move quickly towards implementing a final peace agreement based on Israel withdrawing from lands seized in 1967. Ending the siege in Ramallah and Israel's wider offensive was the first step in that process. The next steps include a cease-fire, massive aid to rebuild Palestinian infrastructure, renunciation of violence, a settlement freeze, Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the deployment of an international security force.
While the Saudis' endpoint a two-state solution based on Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza remains anathema to Sharon, it accords with a growing sentiment in Israeli security circles that protecting Israel in the long run requires withdrawal from most of those territories, and uprooting many of the settlements. Much of Israel's defense and security establishment has backed an initiative from the influential Council for Peace and Security for unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza, and the evacuation of remote settlements whose protection requires that Israel deploy as many as four soldiers for each settler.
Still, Sharon may have had to cave in on the terms for ending the siege of Arafat's compound, but he's likely to continue to mount incursions he deems necessary in light of the security situation. And that may yet prove to be a daily event, as militant Palestinian groups try to prove they have not been silenced by Israel's offensive. That's just part of the political crisis confronting Arafat as the Palestinian leader emerges from a siege that had made him the most popular leader in the Middle East precisely because of his defiance of the Israelis charged with the responsibility of reining in Palestinian rage in order to move decisively to a cease-fire and political negotiations to finally separate the two peoples. Hamas and other militant groups reject any new negotiations with Israel and the Americans. The PA appears, for now, to have convinced them to confine their attacks to soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, avoiding attacks inside Israel. But while attacks on settlements in the occupied territories don't have the same impact on international opinion as terror strikes in Israeli cities, they are likely to provoke the same response from the Israeli Defense Force. So, there's unlikely to be any easy way for Arafat to at once satisfy the requirements of a renewed peace process and retain his standing on the battered streets of the West Bank.
If Sharon and Arafat both face tough political trials in the weeks ahead, the same can be said for Bush, who has been forced against his instincts to resume the U.S. role of mediating between the Israelis and Arafat. Both Sharon and Arafat will do the barest minimum to satisfy U.S. requirements, which means neither side will generate much momentum toward a resolution, leaving the U.S. and its allies to undertake stronger and more consistent interventions in order to stabilize the situation. Indeed, there are signs of a mounting consensus among Israeli and Arab doves and foreign policy wonks that resolving the situation will require greater direct international involvement, particularly in respect of security issues in territories vacated by the Israelis. The undertaking by Britain and the U.S. to supervise the incarceration, on Palestinian soil, of the 'Ramallah Six' further erodes the taboo over foreign involvement in Israeli-Palestinian security matters, and may mark the first tentative steps toward a wider commitment.