The US is pressing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat more severely than ever before to crack down on militants before he realizes any gains from doing so.
The US toughened its position toward the Palestinians following deadly suicide-bomb attacks early this month. This approach is gaining broad international support, according to a Western diplomat who is involved in cease-fire talks.
"America is very clear about which ducks go in which order: Arafat does something, and other elements fall into place later. Neither from Cairo or Saudi Arabia nor from Europe is anyone dissenting from that order," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
By "other elements," he means steps that the Palestinians say must accompany, or even precede, a crackdown: an end to Israel's warlike tactics and the promise of a return to substantive negotiations toward a Palestinian state. US officials, led by special envoy Anthony Zinni, retired Marine Corps general, have taken "a more businesslike approach," the diplomat adds, than under previous US administrations.
Abdel-Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, hopes the US has learned from the Sept. 11 attacks that "terrorists need to be faced not only with security measures but also with political and economic measures." But he, too, is willing to countenance US tactics that pressure the Palestinians and favor the Israelis, as long as the goal "is to bring the Israelis to the table - at which point there will be many things they don't like."
The Europeans also are increasing their pressure on Arafat. On Monday the European Union labeled two Palestinian groups "terrorist networks" - echoing the terms applied to those thought responsible for the September attacks in the US. And yesterday, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he planned to tell Arafat that "he has to continue fighting terror - it's his obligation."
Three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, it appears that the US has ceased drawing distinctions between its own terrorist enemies and the groups responsible for terrorism against Israel.
"What the Israelis have been looking for since Sept. 11, they have now got," says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
It is too early to tell whether the US approach will succeed. General Zinni has threatened in recent days to leave the region if the two sides do not soon make progress toward a cease-fire, according to Israeli and Palestinian accounts. US officials dispute these reports and say Zinni has no plans to abort his mission.
But even if the Americans do succeed in forcing Arafat to take on the militants who refuse to renounce attacking Israel, there is no guarantee …