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Leaders' Tacks Said to Foil U.S. Efforts

Diplomacy: Sharon has made it clear he wants Arafat out of the picture, and the Palestinian believes he can out-wait him, officials say.

April 03, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In deliberating its role in the raging Mideast crisis, the Bush administration has concluded that its options are limited because Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat have completely changed their strategies in dealing with each other during the last week, according to U.S. officials.

The Israeli prime minister has made it clear that he wants Arafat out of commission, both as president of the Palestinian Authority and as a partner in the peace process, the sources say. Sharon on Tuesday offered Arafat a "one-way ticket" into exile, reflecting his goal of politically emasculating the Palestinian leader. This is half of Sharon's new strategy, administration officials say.

The other half is tracking and arresting members of the militant cells behind the spate of suicide bombings targeting Israelis almost daily--a job Arafat has repeatedly refused to do despite earlier pledges to help end the violence.

In the Palestinian Authority, Arafat's strategy is now based largely on his own physical survival, U.S. officials say.

"Arafat is playing as if all he has to do is survive, and then he wins. He can lose people, buildings, even infrastructure. But by his own survival, he believes he can raise the cost so high that the Israeli body politic will vote Sharon out and reelect the Labor Party, with whom he can make peace," said a well-placed U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous.

The two strategies are based on the same premise: Each leader apparently has concluded that he cannot make peace while the other is in power. And each man is taking steps to undermine the effectiveness--and even the rule--of the other.

"The calculus of neither party favors peace," the official added.

Seeing little flexibility for compromise, the United States is working to have a peace process in place so that the two sides can get back to the negotiating table once the Israelis' military operation in the West Bank is complete.

"When this current, terrible crisis we are in right now passes--the Israeli army finishes its sweeps of these various cities and towns--we will be right back to seeking a political solution. And that political solution will need two parties, the Israelis and Palestinians. And Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian movement," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends."

In the meantime, the United States appears willing to tolerate, albeit reluctantly, the second half of Sharon's strategy. Washington indicated for the first time Tuesday that it would not move to deter Israel from its incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas to round up suspected extremists, an operation Powell said is expected to last at least two more weeks and probably longer.

"What they're doing is routing out terrorists. What they're doing is picking up weapons. What they're doing is trying to destroy this infrastructure of terrorism. And we understand that," Powell said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In conversations with Sharon, however, U.S. officials have made it clear that he should "get it over as quickly as possible," Powell added on CBS' "The Early Show."

But the administration is not willing to accept the other half of the new Israeli strategy, Powell noted during appearances on all five network morning programs Tuesday. "We think Arafat still has a role to play," he said on ABC.

Powell called Sharon again Tuesday, according to the State Department. His message included a warning not to leave Arafat at the top of a structure with nothing underneath, creating a political vacuum that would allow his rivals in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad extremist groups to step in.

"The message was that even though Arafat has so far chosen not to confront the extremists, don't leave him in a place where he'll never be able to confront them. There are dangerous consequences if you leave him at the top but also leave him powerless," said an administration official who asked to remain anonymous.

To help defuse the mounting Arab frustration and anger at the United States, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met with 15 ambassadors Tuesday for what was described as a "quick powwow."

The State Department asked the Arab envoys to pressure Arafat to take bold steps to end the violence as soon as possible, calling this the key to ending the Israeli siege. U.S. diplomats also reassured the envoys that Washington was in turn urging Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian-controlled areas.

U.S. officials acknowledge that some governments may relay the message to Arafat, while several may not.

"We're working with several Arab states, but at times their message is that there is only so much we can do in this environment," said a State Department official.

The administration has also made clear that it does not intend to intervene in the current showdown. On the morning television programs, Powell deflected the growing number of suggestions--including one from his predecessor, Madeleine Albright--that he travel to the region, saying he was prepared to make his third trip to the Mideast as soon as he felt he could accomplish something.

But there was little other diplomatic action Tuesday. "We're in one of those periods when there's a lot of activity but no movement," the State Department official added.

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