Sharon sends Arafat a double-edged peace offer

Israel's premier yesterday said he would allow cease-fire talks after two days of 'quiet.'

Last week's attacks on the US are having a profound impact in the Middle East, particularly on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Israeli officials believe the international revulsion at the New York and Washington attacks gives them new leeway to operate militarily and diplomatically against the Palestinians, according to Israeli and diplomatic analysts.

It is less clear whether the Palestinians are as convinced that the world has changed.

"People I've spoken to on the security side," says a European diplomat, referring to contacts with Palestinian officials, "realize that there has been a complete change in the world order, and they want to be in the right position in that world order." But the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refuses to speculate whether Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat shares this realization.

At the same time, Israeli officials are perturbed about US efforts to include some of its adversaries in a coalition of countries being assembled to retaliate against those believed responsible for the attacks.

"It's really quite difficult to see countries with a long and rich history of harboring terrorists being invited into this club without any preconditions," says an Israeli governent official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Israelis are particularly concerned that Syrian and Palestinian representatives participated in a meeting in Washington with a senior US diplomat on Friday. News reports indicate, however, that countries are being made to meet conditions in order to join the coalition.

Incursions with peace offers

This anxiety may be one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has extended a new, double-edged peace offer to the Palestinians. In a speech to parliament yesterday, Mr. Sharon appealed to Mr. Arafat to "end terror activities completely" and announce a cease-fire, in return for which the Israeli leader said he would halt "initiated operations" by Israeli forces. He also imposed a new precondition - "complete quiet for 48 consecutive hours" - before he would allow Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to hold cease-fire discussions with Arafat.

But this offer follows several days in which Sharon has repeatedly called Arafat "our bin Laden," a reference to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant who is the main suspect in the attacks on the US. Since the attacks last Tuesday, the Israelis also have shown new willingness to invade Palestinian-ruled areas in operations described as responses to shooting incidents and as efforts to eliminate suicide bombings.

In the past, such incursions have drawn worldwide condemnation, but not in recent days. The lingering presence of Israeli tanks around the northern West Bank town of Jenin, and several unprecedented forays into West Bank cities such as Ramallah and Jericho, have occurred without noticeable international criticism.

"The events in the US have created an opportunity for a change in the direction of events between Israel and the Palestinians," says Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general.

In one way, this opportunity "can be utilized for more freedom of action, more severe actions against the Palestinians, and we have seen this development during the last couple of days." On the other hand, Mr. Brom adds, "it can be used to stop the violence, and Sharon is [also] using it [this way]."

Although there are initial indications that Arafat will respond positively to Sharon's offer, according to the European diplomat, the Israeli olive branch doesn't give the Palestinian leader any real reason to crack down on the Palestinians fighters who have continued to attack Israeli military and civilian targets in recent days. "It's going to be a hard sell," the diplomat explains, because the offer demands Palestinian cease-fire without the Israelis lifting their "closure" of Palestinian villages, towns, and cities, and "without alleviating the conditions the Palestinians are facing."

But Israeli officials say that, in light of the events of Sept. 11, the onus is on the Palestinians to stop shooting first.

"[Israeli Foreign Minister] Peres sees a critical moment during which it can be demanded of Arafat to really disassociate himself from anything that has to do with terrorism," says the Israeli official.

Palestinians have long insisted that Sharon is not interested in peace talks, and yesterday's offer does make it harder for the two sides to return to the table. Peres has been working for weeks to organize cease-fire talks, the first of which was to have been held yesterday.

Instead, Sharon barred him from going ahead and imposed a new 48-hours-of-quiet requirement before such talks can take place. Those talks, in Sharon's view, would then be followed by another, seven-day period of complete calm that would in turn have to precede any of the confidence-building measures that are specified under a US-led cease-fire process.

Diplomats say that these measures, including a freeze on Israeli settlements, are needed to make it politically feasible for Arafat to institute and enforce a halt on violence.

Sharon has not yet agreed to a complete freeze, even though that is what is specified by a cease-fire plan devised by a committee led by former US Sen. George Mitchell.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, during a visit to the Middle East in June, succeeded in getting Sharon to reduce the Israeli requirement for calm from 10 days to seven. Now, Sharon seem to have regained two of the three days he gave up.

But it may also be that Sharon is offering Arafat conditions he knows the Palestinian leader cannot meet. Analysts observe that the Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory have raised tensions, not calmed them.

Demonstrating that the Palestinians are unable to respond to peace offers may help the Israelis in influencing who should be and who should not be a part of the grand coalition that US officials are assembling.

Staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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