LET THE GAMES BEGIN

Aluf Benn, Haaretz

Yesterday was a red-letter day for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For twoyears, Sharon has insisted that he will not negotiate with “the dog, the murderer and the liar” Yasser Arafat and has called for his replacement with a “pragmatic” leader. With the establishment of a new Palestinian Authority government under Abu Mazen, Sharon has now got what he wanted.

It was not a simple struggle. At first, Sharon spoke to Arafat by telephone, sent his son, Omri, and Shimon Peres to speak with him, and promised to meet with him when the violence ceased. But gradually, Sharon encased Arafat in his “cage” in Ramallah, and convinced the international community that the man could not serve as a partner in the peace process.

The original responses around the world to Sharon’s declaration that Arafat “is not relevant” wavered between astonishment and rejection.But Sharon pushed forward relentlessly, winning over U.S. President George W. Bush. In his wake, the president brought the Europeans, the UN and the leaders of Arab countries, who, together, put pressure on Arafat to move aside and agree to the appointment of Abu Mazen and his close security aide, Mohammed Dahlan.

The question that now remains is: What will happen with this victory?

The coming days will see a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region. The road map will finally be published; Sharon will meet Abu Mazen, who is now his counterpart in name; U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will return to the Middle East after an absence of more than a year; and the European foreign ministers will request landing rights at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

They will all talk about the new chance for resolving the conflict and setting up a Palestinian state; they will poke Sharon in the ribs about his declarations on relinquishing settlements, they will have photo-ops with Abu Mazen; and they will return to their respective countries. Meanwhile, the sticky problems will remain in the laps of the two prime ministers, the Israeli and the Palestinian.

Sharon is willing to be flexible at the end of the process, but he wants to start with small steps – the same size as the new Palestinian government’s ability to fight terror and his right-wing government’s political resistance.

According to the Israeli interpretation, the focus of the first stage of the road map is a cease-fire and a call to both sides to discuss security matters between them. The remaining demands are for unilateral steps: The Israelis must dismantle outposts and freeze settlement; the Palestinians must institute reforms.

Only when all this is completed will negotiations begin on the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. This means that Sharon can spend long months on security debates, try out local cease-fires and isolated “gestures,” and, at the same time, keep his promise not to hold “political” negotiations under fire.

Abu Mazen’s problem is different: He has to secure legitimacy, whileArafat is breathing down his neck, even if his status is weakened. The political struggle of the past week shows that Arafat is still on the scene; he forced the international community to hold a dialogue with him. Under such circumstances, even the most pragmatic of leaders will find it hard to make “painful concessions.”

It will be interesting to see how Abu Mazen, the refugee from Safed, will react to the Israeli demand that he forgo the “right of return” before negotiations begin.

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