U.S. Lowers Its Sights on Mideast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For separate but equally ominous reasons, the United States has concluded that neither Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to conclude a final peace agreement, according to a wide range of senior U.S. officials.

As a result, Washington has lowered its expectations of what can be achieved if both sides reach the negotiating table. For the foreseeable future, U.S. mediators can probably only hope to lower the level of violence and get Palestinians and Israelis into talks on an interim agreement, U.S. officials now predict.

In Arafat's case, the problem is both the man and the increasingly complex political environment he faces. The Palestinian leader appears unable to make a decision about his own role in history--or make the kind of compromises required to reach a deal, U.S. officials say.

"There's a conflict between what Arafat wants to be and what he wants to do," said a senior State Department official who declined to be identified. "He wants to be defender of the Arab cause, particularly in defending Jerusalem, but he also wants to be the founder of a Palestinian state," which may entail relinquishing long-cherished Arab goals.

"And he doesn't want to reconcile the contradictions of his position," the official said, "so he therefore prefers inaction rather than action."

In Sharon's case, the problem is his ingrained dislike of Arafat and distrust of the Palestinians, reflected during talks with President Bush late last month. The Israeli leader outlined, with a detailed map, his vision of a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians that would provide them with only about half the occupied territories, compared with the more than 90% offered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during talks at Camp David a year ago.

Sharon then proposed waiting 20 to 30 years to see if the Palestinians "matured politically" to allow for formal two-state coexistence, U.S. officials said.

Despite the new assessments, the Bush administration isn't giving up its role in brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a process built around a recent report from an international commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). The administration still hopes that a seven-day period of calm can open the way for several weeks of confidence-building, followed by resumed negotiations.

Still, after a decade of intense diplomacy by three American presidents, current and former U.S. officials are now talking with unusual bluntness about the difficulties ahead--and their pessimism about both sides in the dispute.

U.S. officials have focused more on Arafat because he is the sole Palestinian leader. There is no alternative or prospect of change, unlike the situation in Israel, which has had several prime ministers with varying views on the peace process since Menachem Begin first engaged with Egypt's Anwar Sadat more than two decades ago.

And Arafat shows no signs of budging.

"He's like Moses. He can lead his people to the edge, but he's blocked from going all the way," said a well-placed senior U.S. official, who also declined to be identified. "Every time he's on the brink of a high-risk decision, he clutches or steps back. It's not in his constitution or temperament to do it."

In broad strategic terms, Arafat made the critical opening moves in 1988, renouncing terrorism, accepting Israel's right to exist and agreeing to a two-state solution achieved by peaceful mediation. Those moves paved the way for a dialogue with the United States begun during the Reagan administration and continued at the 1991 Madrid peace talks organized by the first Bush administration.

But now that he confronts the final phase of that process, when actions such as compromising on Jerusalem or refugees' right of return will be irrevocable, Arafat is proving unable to close the gap between promises and performance, U.S. analysts say.

"It's ironic. Arafat is more like Sharon than Barak," the senior State Department official said. "He's more comfortable with interim agreements, where he doesn't have to reconcile his long-term mission and his short-term goals, than he is with settling the conflict, which Barak offered him."

Former Mideast envoy Dennis B. Ross, who negotiated five partial agreements during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, said ending the conflict would require too much "personal redefinition" for Arafat.

"He spent his whole adult life in the struggle. To end the conflict means giving up the struggle, to exist without a cause. That's too hard for him. So he'll be content with the status quo," said Ross, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ultimately, Arafat has failed at the basic task of leadership, current and former U.S. officials say. His inability to make peace is reflected in the fact that he has never prepared his people for what peace would mean, both in what they would have to give up and how they would coexist with Israel.

"I'm not convinced that he has the courage to confront his own people. Barak was preparing his people during Camp David about what peace would mean, which was seen in the leaks coming out. Arafat never bothered," said Edward S. Walker Jr., who recently retired as assistant secretary of State to become president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Arafat prefers the status of an icon, with the mystique and mythology of a founding father, to the image--and fate--of President Sadat of Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who were assassinated by their own people after making peace, U.S. officials add.

Since he became an activist in the 1960s, giving up a lucrative job as an engineer in Kuwait, Arafat has also never been able to "take out the gun" against other Palestinians, whether radicals in Jordan in 1970, breakaway groups in Lebanon in the 1980s or Islamic militants in the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, said a senior administration official who asked to remain anonymous.

"And he's not about to start now," the official added. In part, Arafat doesn't see himself as Israel's policeman, a task more necessary as time passes and he faces increasing pressure from Islamic militants and a new generation of frustrated young Palestinians who don't remember the decades of struggle.

"Arafat wants to see himself as father to all Palestinians," the official said. "And he wants to go to his grave never having betrayed them."

That also applies to the wider Arab world. More than once, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rolled her eyes as she recounted how Arafat would remind her that he was permanent chairman of the Arab League Committee on Jerusalem and thus could not compromise further on the city that is holy to three major monotheistic faiths, U.S. officials say.

With Sharon, his past and his political prejudices have also shaped his policies. "He spent the bulk of his life in the military fighting or preparing for wars, and he's always psychologically looked at things through a military lens," Ross said. "I often recall him looking at [the Arab-Israeli dispute] and describing what an American general would insist on."

Since his days as foreign minister, Sharon has consistently argued that Israel can't give the Palestinians what they want and that the Palestinians can't give Israel what it wants. He believes that the Palestinians aren't ready for full peace--"even if they were offered 100% of what they asked for," the senior administration official said.

"Sharon thinks that Palestinians, and other Arabs too, are culturally and politically unable to accept the idea of Israel in perpetuity," he added. "He also believes Palestinians have itchy fingers and can't wait to kill Jews."

A hard-liner in the conservative Likud Party, Sharon has long proposed that the two sides live side by side over an extended period to see if a final agreement is even possible, current and former U.S. officials said. In the past, however, he has talked in terms of years, not decades.

The U.S. assessments of Arafat and Sharon have left the Bush administration with few choices--and limited prospects of long-term success. Washington intends to plug ahead, both in talks with the two governments and in rallying international support for the Mitchell report as the basis for the next steps.

The one hope is that both sides recognize that they are better off in negotiations than in a continuous state of violence, which could spin beyond anyone's control, the State Department official said.

But in the end, the United States may have to settle for a fragile standoff.

Said the senior administration official: "We now face the long-term challenge of crisis management--keeping the conflict from exploding and damaging our interests."

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