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Sharon's Setback: A U.S. Envoy's Return
SERGE SCHMEMANN . NY Times . 9 march 2002

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, with an Israeli officer this week during a visit to the Tarkumia checkpoint 32 miles south of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM, March 8 — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put the best face on the Bush administration's decision to send its envoy back to the Middle East after a two-month absence, declaring that he would drop his demand for a week of peace before joining in negotiations. Yet after several months of operating against the Palestinians with a virtual green light from the Americans, there was little question that the American re-entry was a setback for Mr. Sharon.

In ordering the envoy, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, back to the Middle East, President Bush in effect declared that Mr. Sharon had gone too far in his latest stepping up of the war, which the prime minister introduced by saying that only heavy losses would bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. That was followed by assaults on Palestinian refugee camps and a death toll today of at least 40.

For Mr. Sharon, moreover, the American intervention could mean that he would be forced to start negotiating again with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader he declared irrelevant last year and restricted to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

If that happened, Mr. Arafat would surely claim a major diplomatic victory, and his political standing among the Palestinians would rise accordingly.

The Palestinian leader also hurried to demonstrate good will, announcing tonight that he had arrested another man wanted by Israelis in the killing of a Cabinet minister, Rehavam Zeevi, in October.

The Israelis had made the arrest of the killing suspects a condition for lifting a siege on Mr. Arafat, but even though he earlier arrested three of those who were wanted, the restrictions were retained.

In the convoluted politics of Israel, the decision of the Americans to return did have some immediate advantages for Mr. Sharon.

The rapid rise in violence in recent weeks, and the absence of any evident chance of respite, had begun seriously to erode his standing in public opinion polls, and there was growing talk of defections from his broad "unity government" either by the right or the left. Some commentators had begun speculating that he could fall within weeks.

And if he fell, everyone agreed, he would lose the Likud Party leadership — and with it the chance to lead the next government — to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister and Mr. Sharon's political nemesis, who has rapidly gained strength on the right.

If it was the deteriorating security situation that prompted Mr. Sharon to crank up the military pressure, it was quite possibly the political challenge from his right that prompted him to issue the statement that "many losses must be inflicted so that the enemy will feel the heavy price of its actions."

Now, with the American intervention, Mr. Sharon could hope that the violence would be reduced, easing the pressures on him without compelling him to back down publicly on his threats or his resolve. He could say he was doing what his friends and backers, the Americans, were asking him to do, and not what he would do if only he were not being held back. Furthermore, so long as the Americans were involved, it was unlikely that either right- or left- wing parties would bolt his coalition.

"The government was on the verge of collapse, and it has been delayed with the entry of the Americans," said Natan Sharansky, the minister of housing and construction.

But the respite was likely to be short-lived. Beyond that, every step would create huge tensions in the cabinet.

If Mr. Sharon survived the fact of resumed negotiations with Mr. Arafat, and actually negotiated a cease- fire, he would be confronted with the next level of American demands, those spelled out in the Mitchell report. The report, written by a commission headed by former Senator George Mitchell, called, among other things, for a full cessation of any settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza and the resumption of peace talks.

And if some form of peace negotiations resumed with Mr. Arafat, the hurdles would be far greater. The Palestinians would be certain to come to the table demanding at least what the last prime minister, Ehud Barak, had offered them at Camp David in August 2000 — which, however it was presented, was far, far more than Mr. Sharon would ever offer. The Israeli public, moreover, had shifted considerably to the right during the 17 months of fighting, and would be in no mood to support serious concessions. That left only trust- building measures to work on, but those were unlikely if the only motive was mutual fear.

"Even if we do get to a peace process with Arafat, I don't believe it can work," Mr. Sharansky said. "We offer less than they've been offered, there's no public support, and no chance of a final settlement."

For now, Mr. Sharon is likely to continue trying to avoid making the fateful strategic decision on what to do next — whether to seek an all-out victory over the Palestinians, or to resume negotiations and accept the prospects of major territorial concessions.

Though taken as a good-will gesture by the Americans, his decision not to insist on seven days of peace before entering negotiations did not really change his options. It was announced on Friday evening, when the Sabbath prevents many Israelis from watching television, suggesting that the declaration was meant largely for American ears. And the negotiations that Mr. Sharon now said he was willing to enter were those set out in the plan by George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, which in fact calls for negotiating a cease-fire, not entering into the more painful requirements of the Mitchell plan.

There was no suggestion for now that Mr. Sharon was prepared to scale down military operations. "We have to show that we are not capitulating," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Furthermore, there were reports that he would put the Mitchell plan to a vote of his cabinet, which could mean its rejection, and an attempt to start negotiations on replacing it.

Finally, even if Mr. Sharon's government fell, it would probably be replaced by an even more hard-line government under Mr. Netanyahu.

But that was in the future. For the moment, just calming the highest level of violence ever between Israelis and Palestinians posed a Herculean challenge for General Zinni.