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THE WORLD | NEWS ANALYSIS

Pressure Is on Sharon to Negotiate

Mideast: As U.S. envoy returns and violence ebbs, Israeli leader faces new calls to open talks.

January 03, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — With the return to the region today of the United States' special Middle East envoy, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces new pressure to move into broader diplomatic talks with the Palestinians--something he has steadfastly resisted.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni will be picking up the pieces of his earlier peace-seeking mission, which coincided with a surge in violence before ending in failure last month. The U.S. government decided this week to send Zinni back to the Middle East to take advantage of a period of relative calm.

As in his earlier mission, Zinni will urge Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to crack down on militants responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, but this time he will also put pressure on Sharon, urging him to ease restrictions on Palestinians.

Until recently, Arafat did little to comply with the U.S. requests. But on Dec. 16, the day after Zinni left and three days after Sharon declared the Palestinian leader "irrelevant," Arafat went on Palestinian television and ordered his people to stop targeting Jews.

Violence that has raged for the last 15 months has since dropped sharply.

Sharon argues that Arafat has not done enough, and he continues to refuse to deal with the Palestinian leader. Zinni and Sharon are expected to disagree over the significance of the lull in violence, diplomats say. Sharon is maintaining his insistence on seven days of absolute calm before further negotiations; U.S. officials think that is unrealistic.

Sharon is also at loggerheads with his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, over the issue. Peres is urging the government to consider moving on to fuller peace talks, given the recent days of lessened unrest.

Peres said at a news conference Wednesday that he hoped Zinni would solidify the cease-fire and then push the two sides into a political process. "I think there's a beginning that should be strengthened, and then we can go ahead," Peres said. "Time should not be wasted."

Since Arafat's Dec. 16 address, one Israeli has been slain, by Palestinians who apparently infiltrated the country from Jordan, and 20 Palestinians have been killed--14 by Israeli troops and six by Arafat's security forces during clashes with Islamic militants.

Sharon, however, maintains that the Palestinian efforts still fall far short. He argues that shootings have continued in the last couple of weeks and that any decline is because of Israeli intervention, not Palestinian proscription. Further, he says, the Palestinian Authority has yet to dismantle what he calls the "terrorist infrastructure" used by Palestinian radicals.

"It's clear that the week of calm is not behind us, because every day we are witness to the permanent dosage of terrorism," Sharon's Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, said Wednesday.

Saar acknowledged that the number of incidents has declined by more than 50%, from 20 to 30 a day before Dec. 16 to 10 a day now. An incident can be anything from an explosion to potshots. The Israeli army said it has thwarted at least one suicide bomber in the past two weeks.

"I wouldn't recommend that under these circumstances we declare this to be quiet," Saar told Israel's Army Radio. "There is no quiet."

Defining "quiet," diplomats said, will be a major point of contention between Zinni and Sharon. The U.S. decision to send Zinni again, after his frustrating first foray, is tacit recognition that violence has subsided significantly.

As he did in his first visit, Zinni is expected to put pressure on Arafat. He will tell the Palestinian leader to intensify the effort to arrest militants, which the Palestinian Authority says it is doing; arrest higher-ranking suspects; and dismantle bomb factories and other infrastructure.

Israeli officials have described the arrests so far as a sham, with only 10 people from Israel's 33 most-wanted list having been picked up, and with no serious interrogations or punishment.

Although Sharon escaped U.S. pressure during Zinni's first mission, he will be told this time to take concrete steps to ease curbs on Palestinians, including the closures that have shut off virtually every Palestinian town. Sharon's office said Wednesday that it had ordered roadblocks to be lifted, but Palestinians across the West Bank said they discerned no change. And Peres said restrictions are being announced but not implemented.

A senior aide to Sharon said in an interview that the prime minister's goal is to be rid of Arafat. Consequently, no effort that Arafat makes will be sufficient to force Sharon to open up to political negotiations. Sharon is waiting for a post-Arafat era, the official said, and will adamantly refuse to deal with Arafat.

If true, that will surely complicate Zinni's mission. Diplomats said Zinni hopes to move Israelis and Palestinians beyond the nuts and bolts of cease-fire and closer to a peace plan drafted last year by a team led by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell.

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