Washington Ariel Sharon authorized Yasser Arafat to travel in the West Bank and Gaza after smashing the offices the Palestinian leader would use and arresting many of those he would visit. Arafat must soon solicit Sharon's permission to travel to Beirut, where this bloodstained supplicant would be hailed at an Arab summit as a conquering hero.
This is fig-leaf season in the Middle East. Much of the political shucking and jiving is designed to ride out the current visit to the region by Vice President Cheney. Israeli and Arab leaders have already reached deep into the bag of political tricks each keeps on hand for VIVAs (Very Important Visiting Americans) to pull out promises of new flexibility, visions of peace plans to be filled in later, and their own wish lists of what Cheney can do for them.
The fact that this season's fig leafs are so tattered and transparent suggests how desperate and unyielding the war between Israelis and Palestinians has become. While authorizing Arafat to leave the town of Ramallah for the first time in three months and softening his stated terms for a truce, Sharon told the Israeli public that his concessions were tactical: "This isn't a withdrawal, or me folding," he said before sending tanks into Ramallah and into refugee camps throughout the territories to punctuate his message. Believe him.
This is what passes for optimism in the Middle East these days: "We may be able to get a few weeks of calm by holding out the prospect that Arafat will be allowed to go to Beirut and by having the vice president visit," said an Israeli official.
Sharon's ultimate value is not calm. He makes this clear by smacking down any small carrot for Arafat with a fist of steel. Sharon has long worried that Israel was becoming weak and risking its survival by failing to respond to Arab provocations. He is now in a position to wage a war for Israel's soul. Sharon welcomes what could be called, to mangle a religious metaphor, a rebaptism of fire for the Jewish state.
Sharon has gone for broke in raiding the camps shortly before Cheney's arrival next week. He has stretched Israel's counterinsurgency military resources to the limit, giving new life to the Israeli peace movement. Israelis must now wonder what happens if Sharon's strategy fails to halt a Palestinian uprising rapidly becoming more efficient in its bloodletting.
Palestinians exult in the latest body-bag counts showing them killing one Israeli for every three of their own deaths. Arafat also fights for an abstraction as well as for tangibles. He fights to drive Israelis off territory he could have had through compromise at the negotiating table at Camp David. He must create a tale of liberation for his people after 1,000 years of Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli occupation.
Cheney's trip reportedly in the works before Sept. 11 will focus on U.S. intentions to drive Iraq's Saddam Hussein from power and will try to influence Israeli and Arab responses to that still evolving effort. Cheney will, at a minimum, communicate what actions the United States will see as unhelpful in the next phase of the war on terrorism.
He will not meet Arafat, diplomats have been told, but will probably see other top Palestinian Authority figures. Cheney will leave any negotiating to mediator Anthony Zinni, ordered back to the region this week as a bit of U.S. fig leaf. Zinni's presence permits Cheney to avoid getting bogged down in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to stay focused on Iraq.
But Cheney's trip will inevitably communicate a large message about America's willingness and ability in the wake of Sept. 11 to help Israelis and Palestinians move back from the brink of no return on which Sharon and Arafat maneuver.
The shadow of the vice president's visit helped spur Saudi Arabia to repackage the long-standing and non-negotiable Arab demand for total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and re-label it as a new peace concept. Crown Prince Abdullah's idea may not change the Middle East, but it has changed the subject. He and Cheney no longer have to dwell, at least in public, on the manifest problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
It is of course better to have the Saudis and other Arabs talking about peace (even if the comments of Syria and other Arab states have sought to water down Abdullah's proposal) than about war. Cheney's presence may even move Sharon and Arafat toward a momentary truce.
It is worth a try. And it certainly makes you wonder what high-level Bush administration involvement in the Middle East, with clear U.S. goals in mind, might have accomplished if it had come earlier.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.