March 2, 2003

A Pivot Point for the Middle East

By JAMES BENNET

JERUSALEM, 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.

In Afghanistan 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.

While this 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 grew.

The impasse 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.

That message 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.

The Israeli 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.

Further, Mr. 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.

Mr. Sharon 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 reforms.

Further, by 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.

At bottom, 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 University.

If concessions 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.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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