As a leatherneck ex-general waded into one of the world's toughest theaters of battle - Israeli-Palestinian truce talks - there were indications America might have to wait for both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to pass from the scene before a lasting peace can ever be forged.
New U.S. Middle East peace envoy Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general well-versed in thorny mediation, faces a formidable boot camp in his first crack at persuading the prime minister and the Palestinian Authority chairman to agree to steps aimed at quelling 14 months of nonstop bloodshed.
With the militant Islamic Hamas aching to avenge Israel's weekend assassination of its top military commander Mahmoud Abu Hanoud - an urge underscored by a Monday suicide bombing in Gaza that killed the attacker and wounded two Israeli Border Policemen - Sharon pointedly reiterated his bottom-line demand for a week of absolute calm before any Israeli implementation of the Mitchell Commission recommendations for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman who dispatched his old comrade-in-arms Zinni to the Middle East, has strongly hinted that Sharon's pre-condition of seven days of quiet is one of the obstacles blocking the path back to the negotiating table.
Also greeting Zinni on his planned arrival Monday was the publication of a high-level Israeli intelligence report to Sharon, stating that Arafat was unlikely to be part of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The report recommends that Israeli leaders turn their attention to the "next generation" of (post-Arafat) Palestinian leaders, concluding that the PA chairman, under pressure from militants at home and Israel's military in the field, will refrain from taking the steps necessary to move toward a true peace.
At the same time, Palestinians greeted with alarm Sharon's nomination of ex-general and counter-terrorism adviser Meir Dagan to lead Israel's team in talks with the visiting American delegation. Palestinians, who view Dagan as a hardliner even among rightist Israeli officials, said the choice was one more indication that Sharon had no intention of making peace.
Hassan a-Sheikh, a senior West Bank official of Arafat's Fatah PLO faction, said it was in the prime minister's interest to keep the violence going indefinitely, in order for him to preserve his rightist credentials within the Likud party, where his rival, ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to needle the incumbent as soft on terrorism.
"I am certain Sharon has a personal, partisan interest, in view of his present race with Netanyahu to keep the violence stoked," a-Sheikh told Army Radio. "He wants to succeed in the Likud Party, he has no other partner, he has no peace plan. He just has a war plan, he doesn't want to get out of this [military] framework."
According to Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar, "peace will not be 'Sharon's and Arafat's baby.'" As for the Americans, "in the best case, they will be able to manage the conflict, not resolve it," he adds. "The Palestinians' analysis is that the minimum requirement that Arafat needs, which is basically something between [Ehud Barak's offers of concessions in negotiations at] Camp David and Taba, is unacceptable to Sharon.
"What Zinni is looking at now, is to put the peace process on the back burner, on the one hand trying to ensure that the fire is not extinguished altogether, and on the other that the fire does not burn the house down," says Eldar. "The Americans understand that if Barak and Arafat couldn't work out an agreement, it is that much more unlikely that Sharon and Arafat will succeed."
Zinni's challenge is to find ways for Arafat to show his public positive results from a truce effort, Eldar concludes. Examples of such confidence-building measures could include a long-postponed Arafat visit with U.S. President George W. Bush and Israel releasing funds so that the PA can pay Palestinian police salaries. "So what Zinni is trying for is to give the Palestinians something up front, along the lines of the Tenet recommendations, to which Israel has already agreed," explains Eldar.
"What Sharon has done is like buying a bottle - the Tenet and Mitchell Report - and then corking it. Sharon and Arafat have both already bought the bottle. What Zinni is trying to do is to open the bottle, and to make Sharon and Arafat drink its contents."
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