Both Israel and the Palestinians edged closer to declaring a ceasefire yesterday after a lightning visit by Dick Cheney, the American Vice-President, on a mission to douse the flames of the Middle East.
On face value, his visit was disappointing for the Palestinians and a success for Israel. He left without seeing Yasser Arafat or any of his senior officials, although he met Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, twice.
He made no reference to the Israeli occupation, the issue regarded by Palestinians as central to the conflict, or to last week's massive and bloody military offensive by the Israeli army, which – though it had withdrawn by yesterday from most Palestinian-run areas – was still blockading towns and villages across the occupied territories.
Instead, Mr Cheney dangled an offer in front of Mr Arafat of a meeting "somewhere in the region" as early as next week, but only on condition that he did his best to fulfil his half of the joint security plan drawn up last year by George Tenet, the CIA director.
"He came and he left – and that's it," one well-placed Palestinian source remarked bitterly. "What are we supposed to get excited about? Do we now have to grovel just to shake some American's hand?"
And yet, the small print of Mr Cheney's remarks yesterday suggested that Mr Arafat had won important diplomatic points and had more leverage than he has enjoyed for months.
The White House wants calm in the Middle East to pave the way for possible action against Iraq; during his tour of the Arab world, Mr Cheney was repeatedly told that this required America to act to ease the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
And Mr Sharon needs a ceasefire – at least for now – so he can show an increasingly dissatisfied electorate that his strategy, including raids into impoverished Palestinian refugee camps, is producing more than just further misery, bloodshed and international condemnation.
Mr Arafat, without ending attacks by Palestinian militias, has won the prospect of meeting the US Vice-President next week – a victory of sorts, albeit limited. Mr Sharon can no longer unilaterally determine whether or not his foe is doing enough to restore calm: Mr Cheney made clear that the Americans – through their envoy General Anthony Zinni – will decide if Mr Arafat is implementing the Tenet agreement sufficiently to be allowed to meet Mr Cheney.
It was the latest of several gains. Mr Sharon recently dropped his demand for a total end to Palestinian attacks for seven days before beginning the long path back to negotiations. America has now accepted that violence cannot be ended at once. Mr Cheney yesterday referred to implementing the Tenet plan, which principally contains security measures, and then moving towards a ceasefire. He is looking for "100 per cent effort", rather than complete success.
And yesterday, only hours after Palestinian guerrillas had killed another Israeli soldier in the West Bank, Mr Sharon declared that Mr Arafat would be free to travel abroad again, including to the Arab Summit in Beirut next week, where Saudi Arabia's much-vaunted peace plan is to be debated.
Mr Sharon said that was conditional on Mr Arafat fulfilling his side of the Tenet plan. He also made a veiled threat that he might not allow the Palestinian to return, if he exploited the spotlight in Beirut to incite violence, or if attacks against Israel continued in his absence. But such a ban would provoke a head-on conflict with the Americans.
A few months ago, these developments would have been unthinkable. Yet the gains are likely to seem remote to the Palestinian militias waging war on the ground. Although Mr Arafat – more popular now than for many months – can prevail on Fatah paramilitaries to stop attacking Israel, what is uncertain is whether the suicide bombers of Hamas or the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades will stop killing and maiming civilians, particularly if Israel continues to assassinate their activists.Reuse content