Anthony Zinni's mission

Mideast: U.S. envoy arrives this week amid the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in 17 months.

March 12, 2002

THE TERRORIST attacks against Israelis these days are outpacing the daily newspaper headlines. If that is not exactly so, the perception for many is that the next suicide bomber has already arrived at a cafe, the next grenade already tossed in a banquet hall.

For Palestinians, another kind of terror awaits. Israel's army executes strike after strike, in order, they say, to disrupt the terrorist campaign. Tanks grind through two more refugee camps as a voice blares from a bullhorn: Men, ages 15 to 45, surrender. Yesterday's sweeps rounded up about 1,000 Palestinian men, many of whom were then handcuffed and blindfolded and stripped to their waists.

These are the facts as retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the U.S. envoy, heads for Jerusalem on Thursday to broker a cease-fire in the most recent, 17-month-old conflict. The Bush administration, in an about-face of its previous policy, agreed to dispatch Mr. Zinni while urging both sides to "exercise maximum restraint." Mr. Zinni faces some tough going.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who considers Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat an instigator of the terror attacks against Israel and an obstacle to peace, can't afford to be too conciliatory with the ultra-right forces in his Cabinet already threatening to quit his government. A year after his election, Sharon the strongman has seen his approval rating dip below 50 percent. And yet someone has been whispering in his ear.

Although Mr. Sharon has refused to pull back Israel's army, he is no longer insisting on "seven days of quiet" before he will discuss a cease fire with the Palestinians. And just yesterday, he agreed to lift the travel ban on Mr. Arafat, who had been confined to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He cited the Palestinians' arrest of the last suspect in the October murder of Israel's tourism minister. But in his heavy-handed way, Mr. Sharon warned Mr. Arafat that Israel would take "appropriate steps" if any of the suspects sauntered through the Palestinians' revolving door of justice.

Mr. Arafat is free now to travel the Palestinian territories. But to what end? Israeli bombs have demolished his headquarters in Gaza, and similar attacks have decimated his security forces. Palestinians in the villages and refugee camps are defiant and resilient. At least two generations of Palestinians have grown up under occupation. Their resistance is encouraged by militant young activists.

Although Mr. Arafat urgently sought American intervention, don't expect him to make any conciliatory moves in the initial days of Mr. Zinni's visit. He may be untrustworthy and his regime corrupt, but he will want to convey to his people that he is steadfast in his support of them.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat must consider this as they await Mr. Zinni's arrival and plot their strategies. Creating an environment for peace is far more their responsibility than it is that of the American envoy. Mr. Zinni, for his part, needs to be firm in his resolve - and creative in his approach - to achieve that elusive breakthrough.

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