Palestinians say the tide has turned

Cheney said yesterday he may meet with Arafat, and Israel says it may end Arafat's confinement.

The conviction is growing among Palestinians that they have gained the upper hand over Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat yesterday racked up two tactical, short-term victories. Vice President Dick Cheney said he would return soon to the Middle East to meet Mr. Arafat, thus ending the Bush administration's embargo on top-level meetings with the Palestinian leader, provided he takes steps in the coming days to stop attacks against Israelis. Under the same condition, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to end Arafat's punitive confinement to this West Bank city, meaning that he may be able to attend a much-anticipated Arab summit in Beirut later this month.

Arafat, a man the Israeli government once declared "irrelevant," is now back in the thick of events.

Israelis are divided

The Palestinians are also winning, if that is the word, in longer-range, more strategic ways. They are enjoying unprecedented international engagement in efforts to resolve their plight: The US is once again intimately involved in mediation efforts, the UN Security Council has for the first time formally endorsed the idea of the "state of Palestine," and the Arabs are working on a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East.

But Palestinians say that the greatest evidence of their advantage is that Israeli society seems divided over the best way to address the conflict. Palestinians themselves are much more unified behind a strategy of violent resistance to Israel's enduring occupation of their lands.

Ibrahim Abayat, a fatigue-wearing, gun-wielding leader of a Palestinian militia in Bethlehem, says he is convinced that this approach is "100 percent" effective. "It is the only language the Israelis understand."

"What happened in Jerusalem on Gaza road," he says, referring to a suicide-bomb attack at a cafe this month that killed 11 Israelis, "has stirred up Israeli society and made them question the effectiveness of Israeli military operations against us." Of course, not just this bombing has created a debate – a slew of them has – and it is not yet clear whether Israeli frustration will translate into more drastic military action or a shift of gears toward peace talks.

A cold peace

Nearly half of Israelis questioned in a Tel Aviv University poll conducted in February said they favored the forcible "transfer" of Palestinians out the territories – generally considered the most hawkish and extreme approach to the conflict. At the same time, fully 50 percent said they favored the removal of all but the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – a sign that there is still strong support for a negotiated solution that would provide the Palestinians with a state on these lands, which were seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

A leading member of what is called Israel's security establishment – the soldiers and officials who have devoted careers and lives to defending the Jewish state – says the Palestinians should indeed feel victorious after nearly 18 months of conflict. "They are right," says Ami Ayalon, former director of the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, the country's internal intelligence service. "More Israelis than two years ago would vote for a Palestinian state which is not far from the '67 borders," he says.

But while the Palestinians may get more land than they were offered in US-brokered peace talks in 2000, they may pay a price down the road, Mr. Ayalon adds. An agreement reached today, he says, "will be between two societies that not only have lost trust, but that hate each other."

Even so, there is an unmistakable sense of victory among Palestinians.

The failed US-sponsored peace talks in 2000, says Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian cabinet minister, "really led to a confrontation of wills about the shape of the final settlement" between the two sides. In the violence that ensued, the Israeli intent was "to break our will," Mr. Shaath says, in order to reduce Palestinian expectations of the peace process. "We're seeing, I believe, the end of [that] strategy."

Israelis see the mirror image. The conflict of the past 18 months was a calculated resort to violence by the Palestinians, they say, intended to break Israeli will in hopes of achieving a better settlement.

'This is a war'

But today it is Sharon, not Arafat, who seems to be in retreat. At a press conference yesterday with Cheney, Sharon was asked why he was the one who appeared to be asking for a cease-fire. After a two-week period of aggressive Israeli action that included the biggest invasions of Palestinian areas since the 1967 war, Israeli forces have pulled back to their original position in compliance with US and Palestinian demands.

Instead of answering the question, Sharon chided the reporter, apparently a journalist for the Israel Defense Forces radio service. "We have achieved a lot ... and I expect a commentator of the IDF to emphasize the achievements of the army."

Sharon's popularity is roughly half what it was when he came into office a year ago, and the criticism of his handling of the conflict is coming from the very officials who are charged with carrying out his policy. "This is the Shin Bet point of view," said a senior Israeli security source at a background briefing last week. "We don't think that attacking empty buildings is something which is helping us," the official said, referring to a Sharon tactic of destroying buildings associated with the Palestinian Authority as a way of holding Arafat responsible for attacks against Israelis. "We think, OK, ruin their offices, but kill the people, too. This is a war."

Undermining a second of the pillars of Sharon's approach – a refusal to discuss a political settlement until violence ceases – the official says "it's impossible to end the wave of terror without a political process."

Although it was unclear yesterday just what sort of political process will emerge from the current round of cease-fire efforts, Palestinians and diplomats say there will be some political element in talks that US envoy Anthony Zinni is now arranging. This at least partially satisfies another Palestinian demand.

Arafat is about to come under intense pressure to show he can meet the conditions imposed by Sharon and Cheney for his freedom to travel and attend a high-level US meeting. But where a US-brokered cease-fire effort last June left Sharon as the arbiter of the adequacy of Arafat's attempts to stop violence, today it is Mr. Zinni who occupies that role.

It has never been clear to what degree Arafat is in control of Palestinian militants, and now that question will again become central.

The man who has probably gained the most from a year and a half of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Marwan Barghouti. The West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, Mr. Barghouti has gone from a supporter of the peace process to an ardent promoter of military "resistance" against Israel. He has become extremely popular along the way.

The Palestinians' success, he says, is due to Fatah's conclusion sometime last year that "it's impossible to reach an agreement on the end of occupation without strong resistance."

"Gradually, the resistance improved its tools and deepened its level of experience," he says, referring to recent attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets by Fatah militants. "Palestinians have become encouraged."

Palestinians have also become more and more focused on ending the Israeli occupation immediately, Barghouti says, and less and less inclined to return to a peace process that offers that end as an ultimate goal.

"It's not enough [for negotiators] to talk about" cease-fire mechanisms, he adds. "We need a political agreement and we need an end to occupation."

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