Background / U.S. and Egypt in Desperate Truce Bid

Washington and Cairo dispatch high-level diplomatic firefighters in bid to douse Israeli-Palestinian blazes before they flare entirely out of control, but task has never before been so difficult, nor threat of unbridled violence so grave.

As Yasser Arafat apparently faced a choice between a deadly civil war with militant domestic rivals, or an all-out conflagration with long-time nemesis Ariel Sharon, Washington and Cairo dispatched high-level diplomatic firefighters to douse smoldering blazes before they flared entirely out of control.

The United States and Egypt - crucial patrons, respectively, of Israel and Arafat's Palestinian Authority - have been instrumental in the past in cajoling the sides into accepting peace accords and truce agreements.

Sending in senior envoys of the caliber of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and ex-Marine General Anthony Zinni, the American and Egyptian presidents attempted a diplomatic pincer movement in an effort to apply irresistible force to two immovable objects, effectively double-teaming Sharon and Arafat

But the task has never before been so difficult, nor the threat of unbridled violence so grave.

Israel, still mourning its heavy casualties in weekend Hamas suicide bombings, has unleashed a series of ominous warnings to Arafat, who saw his personal helicopters destroyed, his office nearly bombed, and his rule threatened in an unending parade of declarations by Israeli hard-liners bent on the demise of the PA chairman's tenure.

In the latest indirect message to Arafat, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was to discuss a Monday cabinet decision which declared Israel's former peace-making partner as an entity that supports terrorism, and effectively authorized harsh, as-yet classified, new Israeli military operations in the territories.

Although the debate was largely symbolic, committee members pointedly noted that it was to be held under the terms of the body of Israeli laws governing the declaration of war. Committee chairman MK David Magen (Center Party) declined Thursday to detail the new steps Israel could unleash on the Palestinians, but continued:

"I can say that after the terrible terrorist attacks on Saturday night and Sunday ... the cabinet's decision was not simply a declaration, but it includes operational elements of a different standard, and I hope that these operations will bear fruit and markedly reduce the terrorism."

Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, using the euphemism "pinpoint prevention," told lawmakers in his Likud party Wednesday that he will step up the assassination campaign against men Israel has singled out as senior terrorist commanders. Other military steps were contemplated as well, Likud figures said.

The surprise mission of Cairo's foreign minister was widely viewed in Israel as rooted in Egyptian fears that an upsurge in violence in the territories - whether as a result of Palestinian infighting or renewal of intensive Israeli attacks, perhaps resulting in the collapse of Arafat's rule - could reverberate among the powerful if largely underground Islamic fundamentalist movements operating in Egypt, causing destabilization of Mubarak's own hold on power.

Palestinian figures close to Arafat, meanwhile, even as they condemned the Israeli attacks and warned of the dangers of wider-scale warfare if Sharon makes good on warnings to escalate the level of military pressure, sounded a markedly tougher tone Thursday where Hamas and other militant organizations were concerned.

"The Palestinian Authority is interested in making clear, and it is its right to do so, that there is only one ruling authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," said Israeli Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi, a former senior advisor to Arafat "This is as it should be. It is the right and obligation of all ruling authorities in the world that there be no 'doubled' rule [by other elements or factions] in any area.

"This necessitates legal and governmental measures, and this is what is happening now." Tibi maintained, however, that the Israeli attacks had yielded a wellspring of new support for Arafat, and "empathy for him, even among opposition elements."

Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has strongly taken issue with Israel's attempts to subdue the uprising by force, and its past retaliations for terrorist strikes. Cairo's displeasure was most keenly felt earlier this year, when it recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv for "consultations" which, in practice, are still under way.

Tibi said Mubarak's decision to send Maher followed a number of personal appeals by Arafat over the last two days. "The chairman asked the president of Egypt to use the full weight of his office to head off this attack on the Palestinian Authority," Tibi said. "There's no question that the Palestinians wanted and do want active Egyptian involvement in order to prevent this serious whirlpool in which all the parties to the conflict are stuck."

According to Ha'aretz commentator Danny Rubinstein, Arafat's nightmare scenario is that when Israeli attacks resume, Sharon will order the bombing of the prisons in which arrested Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants are being held

Senior Palestinian officials "have long been aware of the growing bitterness and alienation in the West Bank and Gaza toward the leadership, and if the prisoners are killed in an Israeli attack, Arafat and his men will be immediately blamed for it.," Rubinstein writes in Thursday's paper. "The Palestinian street will also be suspicious of collusion among Arafat, the Israelis and Americans to eliminate the intifada activists now being held in PA jails."

Palestinian officials believe the Israel and U.S.-mandated PA arrest campaign against militants will have a positive effect only if the right-leaning Sharon government offers a glimmer of hope for a return to peace negotiations and to diplomatic gains for grass-roots Palestinians.

Palestinian sources noted that there were "many years in which the Israeli security establishment held as many as 15,000 Palestinians in jails and other facilities, and that did not result in a complete end to the violence and attacks," Rubinstein writes. "In other words, there's a reason to make arrests - if they are accompanied by negotiations that create an opportunity for settlement of the conflict."