In a deadly serious minuet of survivalism, President George Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have one thing in common: each has a strong interest in keeping the peace process stalled, and each hopes to be the one able to stall the longest.
For Arafat, the stakes could be the highest. Never before has the wily, eternally uniformed Palestinian leader been so hemmed in on so many sides, with a wide cross-section of Israelis - and even American and Arab opinion makers - casting doubts as to his worth as a leader, and hinting more and more openly that his ouster might pave the way for a return to peace talks.
After a war that has cost thousands of Palestinian casualties and a considerable fraction of international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Arafat has few options remaining: If he cracks down on militants and moves forward with the peace process, he risks being branded a servant of Israel and Washington, and a traitor to the Palestinian cause. Should he fail to do so, he courts the wrath not only of the White House, but of moderate Arab leaders, notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who pointedly hinted this week that Arafat will have to deliver on past promises if he wants to keep his job.
Buoyed by Arafat's distress, Sharon has been playing a waiting game of his own. In the latest of a series of lines drawn in the sand - each an ultimatum setting conditions for renewal of the peace process - the prime minister has ruled out any diplomatic progress unless the Palestinian Authority undertakes real reforms.
Israeli officials have left no doubt that reform in Israel's lexicon means, first and foremost, the sidelining if not outright expulsion of Yasser Arafat.
For Sharon, the reform stance, which has been echoed by many world leaders less than sympathetic to the Israeli leader, buys the most precious of political commodities in the Middle East - time.
To judge by recent remarks of the inscrutable Likud leader, his timetable is keyed to keeping the coalition government in power for as long as possible, with a victory in elections scheduled for no later than November 2003 allowing him the relative political freedom of a second, lame-duck term.
A second term is also a vital consideration for Bush, particularly in view of his father's ill-fated effort to win re-election. Until November 2004, the administration may therefore be forced to walk a fraying tightrope, with millions of American Jewish and Muslim voters watching its every lean and dip.
Where the issue of Arafat's fate is concerned, Bush has additional reasons to decide not to decide. The question has spurred disagreement in the upper echelon of the adminstration, adding fuel to contentions that Bush lacks a coherent foreign policy.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the Pentagon are viewed as favoring expulsion of Arafat from the region. His boss Richard Cheney takes issue with deportation, but agrees with Israelis who rule out Arafat as a constructive partner for negotiations. Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, is believed to be holding out for giving Arafat at least one more chance to return to diplomacy.
Refraining from clear-cut policy moves also affords advantages to Sharon, whose right-left coalition also leaves him little room for maneuver. Sharon's cabinet, which encompasses settlers and supporters of settlement dissolution, is divided on a range of crucial issues, with profound antipathy toward Arafat a notable exception.
As Sharon prepared to meet Bush Monday, Labor Party Chairman and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was telling audiences how Israel hoped that international annoyance with Arafat would marginalize the PA chief.
"The world, and by this I mean Europe, the United States, Russia, and perhaps Japan, knows how to act as one with the moderate Arab world, and bring all of its might - all of its might - to bear on the Palestinians, and in particular on Arafat," Ben-Eliezer said, adding that this would guarantee that "Arafat would simply sit on the sidelines, his actions neutralized, and this would allow others to get the job done."
To drive the point further home, hours before Sharon was to meet Bush in Washington on Monday, elite IDF troops and armor re-took positions surrounding the Ramallah compound to which Sharon recently confined Arafat for more than a month.
The Ramallah incursion might have given Arafat a short-term boost in the waiting game, allowing him to postpone a scheduled meeting of his reshuffled cabinet. But it did little to counter charges by Islamic militants and even officials of Arafat's own Fatah that the changes Arafat proposed were cosmetic at best.
While Arafat faces enemies of all stripes literally at the gates, his most recent moves have only bolstered criticism that his major goal was to keep present structures fundamentally intact. The Palestinian Authority chairman's most dramatic move, appointing an interior minister to oversee PA security forces in his stead, was universally received as an example of the present made permanent.
"What is interesting about Arafat is that he has always nominated two people" as security commanders, said Ha'aretz commentator Danny Rubinstein, in a reference to the nomination of the aging General Abdel-Razzaq al-Yahya, viewed as a longtime Arafat crony, as interior minister.
"It can't be that he'll nominate just one. He needs to nominate two, so that they'll quarrel with each other and be forced to come to him. The second will apparently be (former senior Gaza security official) Mohammad Dahlan, who will be his advisor on security matters. So they'll always be sparring over whose really in authority, and will be forced to run to Arafat."
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