The US is pressing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat more severely than ever before to crack down on militants before he realizes any gains from doing so.
The US toughened its position toward the Palestinians following deadly suicide-bomb attacks early this month. This approach is gaining broad international support, according to a Western diplomat who is involved in cease-fire talks.
"America is very clear about which ducks go in which order: Arafat does something, and other elements fall into place later. Neither from Cairo or Saudi Arabia nor from Europe is anyone dissenting from that order," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
By "other elements," he means steps that the Palestinians say must accompany, or even precede, a crackdown: an end to Israel's warlike tactics and the promise of a return to substantive negotiations toward a Palestinian state. US officials, led by special envoy Anthony Zinni, retired Marine Corps general, have taken "a more businesslike approach," the diplomat adds, than under previous US administrations.
Abdel-Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, hopes the US has learned from the Sept. 11 attacks that "terrorists need to be faced not only with security measures but also with political and economic measures." But he, too, is willing to countenance US tactics that pressure the Palestinians and favor the Israelis, as long as the goal "is to bring the Israelis to the table - at which point there will be many things they don't like."
The Europeans also are increasing their pressure on Arafat. On Monday the European Union labeled two Palestinian groups "terrorist networks" - echoing the terms applied to those thought responsible for the September attacks in the US. And yesterday, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he planned to tell Arafat that "he has to continue fighting terror - it's his obligation."
Three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, it appears that the US has ceased drawing distinctions between its own terrorist enemies and the groups responsible for terrorism against Israel.
"What the Israelis have been looking for since Sept. 11, they have now got," says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
It is too early to tell whether the US approach will succeed. General Zinni has threatened in recent days to leave the region if the two sides do not soon make progress toward a cease-fire, according to Israeli and Palestinian accounts. US officials dispute these reports and say Zinni has no plans to abort his mission.
But even if the Americans do succeed in forcing Arafat to take on the militants who refuse to renounce attacking Israel, there is no guarantee that the Palestinian leader will be able to pull it off.
He faces the opposition of the two groups responsible for most terrorist attacks - the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and the smaller Islamic Jihad organization. Members of Arafat's own Fatah faction are also against a crackdown, which would mean the end of the current uprising, unless the Palestinians receive a clear sense of what they will gain from abandoning what they say is legitimate resistance against occupation. "Is there a plan," Dr. Hollis asks, "for when Arafat reveals just how little he can do?"
Israel's hard-line tactics complicate Arafat's task. On Monday, Israeli missiles killed two Palestinian children on a busy thoroughfare in the West Bank city of Hebron during an attempt to assassinate an alleged Islamic Jihad militant. Yesterday, Israeli forces killed two Palestinians at a checkpoint amid disputed circumstances. These events only strengthen Palestinian support for fighting Israel.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat worries that President Bush gave Mr. Sharon "a green light to wage war" at their meeting in early December. "If this is true," he adds, "it's a disastrous development for the peace process."
The crackdown-first-and-then-we'll-talk approach has additional, long-term risks. Because it requires Arafat to rely on his security forces to institute measures that are unpopular with a majority of Palestinians, it moves his administration one step closer to thuggishness. As it is, the electoral mandates of Arafat and the Palestinian Legislative Council expired last year, and there has been no official word about new elections.
Some prominent Palestinians argue that elections are necessary now to empower their leaders to make peace on terms acceptable to the majority. But Arafat seems wary of the polls. After the Hamas victory last month in a university election in the West Bank, Arafat asked other institutions to postpone their student ballots indefinitely, according to a Palestinian university administrator.
If Arafat is feeling political pressure from Hamas, he is certainly feeling it from Zinni and other sources. That has been "evident in quite emotional meetings," says the Western diplomat.
Arafat also railed against the US in an interview aired on Israeli television last Friday. "Good Lord! What do I care about the Americans?" Arafat said in response to a query about US skepticism of his efforts to arrest militants. "The Americans are on your side, and they gave you everything."
Even so, one US official concedes that Arafat has been doing "better" at fulfilling his promises to come down hard on militants, but the implication is clear: The Palestinian leader still has a ways to go.