March 1 — Since last June, the Bush administration has premised
its policy toward peace in the Middle East on what is apparently
a paradox: it has sought an act of selfless statesmanship from a
leader, Yasir Arafat, whom it regards as no statesman.
and Iraq, the administration has intently worked toward what it
calls regime change, but in the Palestinian Authority it has contented
itself with periodic public gestures and demands. It has refused
to send high-level envoys to Mr. Arafat, while demanding that he
step aside as Palestinian leader in the interests of restarting
peace negotiations and ultimately of achieving a state for his people.
Mr. Arafat has not done so, contending that it is up to the Palestinians
to pick their leaders.
impasse has endured, so has the essential dynamic of the conflict,
despite all the suffering and violence by both Israelis and Palestinians
in the last year. As the administration's attention shifted to other
crises, Palestinian attacks continued, Israeli soldiers operated
more and more freely in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israeli
blockades of Palestinian cities tightened and Israeli settlements
over Mr. Arafat is also likely to muffle the immediate effects of
two significant developments here this week, a renewed vow by President
Bush to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon's formation of a new right-wing Israeli government.
In a speech
in Washington, Mr. Bush envisioned peace here as he sought support
for a war in Iraq, much as his administration once spoke of achieving
Middle East peace as it sought support for the Afghan war. Mr. Bush
predicted that new leadership in Iraq would better position Palestinians
"to choose new leaders" and halt all violence.
has important implications for the second development. Mr. Sharon
created his coalition with the participation of two parties that
oppose any Palestinian state — a declared goal of Mr. Bush and a
declared concession of Mr. Sharon — and that passionately support
the settler movement, which the United States has traditionally
considered an obstacle to peace.
Mr. Bush appeared
to be softening the demands on Israel in a draft for a "road map"
to peace by the so-called diplomatic quartet of the United States,
United Nations, the European Union and Russia. As drafted, the plan
called for immediate concessions by both sides, including insisting
that Israel dismantle settlement outposts built since March 2001.
government has proposed numerous modifications to the road map,
and the Bush administration has repeatedly postponed its announcement
of a final plan.
As long as
the Americans keep the pressure on Mr. Arafat and do not demand
action against settlements or progress toward negotiations — that
is, as long as Mr. Sharon can continue functioning as he has been
— the far-right in the government and the hawks in Mr. Sharon's
Likud Party are unlikely to become restive. They may not even urge
Mr. Sharon to renegotiate his pledge to Mr. Bush two years ago not
to harm Mr. Arafat, because as long as Mr. Arafat remains in the
West Bank, their potential disagreements with Americans and each
other over proceeding toward peace are moot, at least judging by
Washington's present approach. Mr. Sharon has said that his pledge
not to harm Mr. Arafat was all that kept him from trying to force
him into exile last year.
Sharon has set himself up to function as the chief moderating voice
on security matters in his cabinet. If Mr. Arafat is the Bush administration's
dispensable man, Mr. Sharon in the short term may seem even more
indispensable to the administration than he has been, as it seeks
to keep matters relatively calm here during an Iraqi campaign.
has replaced as foreign minister his old rival, Benjamin Netanyahu,
with a relative novice, Silvan Shalom, a change that puts Mr. Sharon
firmly in control of his foreign policy. To some diplomats here,
with the appointment of Mr. Netanyahu as finance minister instead,
Mr. Sharon is preparing to face up to Israel's dire economic situation
and yawning budget deficit. Israel is seeking a large aid package
from the Bush administration, which in turn is seeking economic
including the settlers' parties while excluding parties that represent
ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mr. Sharon may be signaling where he plans
to let the budget ax fall. Shinui, a secular, centrist party that
has also joined the government, is a firm opponent of subsidies
for the religious. In this analysis, it is Israel's economy, rather
than resolving the conflict, that preoccupies Mr. Sharon.
But to some
political analysts, Mr. Sharon is not planning far ahead but merely
maneuvering, clumsily at times, to stay a step or two ahead of his
multiplying rivals and policy headaches. Itzhak Galnoor, a Hebrew
University political scientist, said Mr. Sharon simply felt comfortable
embracing the settlers' parties, the National Religious Party and
National Union, which also served at times in his last coalition.
"For him this
is not far right," he said. "Those are people who believe in things
that are not far from his heart." He noted that Mr. Sharon had awarded
the Ministry of Construction and Housing to Effi Eitam, the leader
of the National Religious Party. Mr. Sharon himself held that post,
and used it to expand the settlements, in the early 1990's under
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
leaders on both sides are seeking to keep their options open until
the expected war in Iraq is under way, which they think will cause
the White House to return its attention here and perhaps adjust
its policy. "Once this operation starts, things will start moving
again here," said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan
are demanded, Mr. Sharon can argue that his right-wing coalition
gives him little room to maneuver. Or, if he wishes to act on his
stated desire for an agreement that yields a limited Palestinian
state in less than half of the West Bank and Gaza, he can sustain
a break with the right and seek support from other factions, including
the left-of-center Labor Party.
For his part,
Mr. Arafat has edged toward meeting the administration's demand,
saying he will shortly appoint a prime minister, although he has
not yet said who will it will be or what powers he will have. More
than a year after being declared "irrelevant" by the Israeli government
and shunned by the United States, Mr. Arafat remains at the pivot
point of peace in the Middle East.