Sharon feels US anger after Arafat seizes the diplomatic high ground

Middle East
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George Bush's chances of building an American-led war coalition including Arab and Muslim countries abruptly improved yesterday when Yasser Arafat bowed to intense diplomatic pressure and announced a unilateral ceasefire.

The Palestinian leader's move was swiftly countered by Israel, which has been the target of intense American and European resentment in the aftermath of the US atrocities. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel's Defence Minister, ordered a halt, except for "immediate self-defence", to all "offensive military operations" ­ a phrase widely assumed to include tank invasions into Palestinian areas and assassinations. He said his forces would at once withdraw from several Palestinian areas seized in recent days.

Yasser Arafat has announced ceasefires before, but yesterday's declaration was seen as far more significant. He made it in Arabic ­ a fact that pleased Israel, which frequently accuses him of speaking differently to the international community than to fellow Palestinians. And he did so after summoning diplomats from 35 countries as witnesses.

The staging, at his beachside presidential headquarters in Gaza City, was replete with a strong political subtext. As he addressed the television cameras, representatives of the UN, the United States and the European Union ­ the three chief brokers of the deal ­ stood clustered behind him, all within the eye of the lens. For once, the world was at his side.

"Let us get together, let us sit down and negotiate peace," he said, reading from a statement that explicitly recognised the right of Israel to live behind "safe and secure boundaries". He had, he said, reiterated orders to his security service commanders to "act intensively in securing a ceasefire on all fronts, and in every town and village". They should also show "maximum restraint" in the face of Israeli attacks, he said.

In doing so, and in signing up for the American "alliance against terrorism", Mr Arafat is acknowledging the huge change of political climate brought about by the destruction at the World Trade Centre. But, more importantly, he has also deftly turned to his advantage the international concerns that the Palestinian issue, especially the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, could fracture the United States' coalition.

Jordan, Egypt and many others in the Arab and Islamic world have made clear that the coalition will be difficult to join while the conflict rages on, cranking up emotions at street level where hatred of Israel and its American allies runs high.

This gave Mr Arafat the opportunity for spectacular diplomatic gains with Washington, which ­ until a week ago ­ was showing strong signs of impatience and hostility towards him. By moving first, he also stole a march on Israel's Ariel Sharon, whose conduct in the last week has appalled the White House and others.

According to Western diplomatic sources, George Bush was furious over Mr Sharon's crudely opportunistic attempts to equate the massive attacks on America ­ in which at least 6,000 people have died ­ with Israel's experience in its conflict with the Palestinians, by branding Mr Arafat as Israel's "bin Laden". In the past week, Israeli tanks have rumbled into the towns of Jenin and Jericho, on wrecking raids, and into several West Bank villages.

There have been helicopter missile strikes on Gaza and an announcement by the Israeli army that next week it will establish a 20-mile-long closed military area on Palestinian land along the north-west edge of the West Bank.

Within the past week, 26 Palestinians have been killed, and six Israelis. And the US, EU and UN were now longer looking to the intransigent Mr Sharon to help them out. Instead, they turned to Shimon Peres, his Foreign Minister, whose standing among them has abruptly improved. Mr Peres welcomed yesterday's developments and said he would "undoubtedly" hold talks with Mr Arafat soon.

The question now is whether the ceasefire will hold. All previous truces over the past year have fallen apart in days. But it is hard to see how Israelis and Palestinians can progress far with peace negotiations, other than more interim agreements, given the gulf that divides them over fundamental issues. Even getting to the first stage ­ the implementation of the peace blueprint laid down in the Mitchell report ­ is precarious. Mr Sharon has recently been insisting on seven days of total quiet before going ahead with it, a condition that is entirely of Israel's making.

Mahmoud Zohair, a spokes-man for the militant Hamas movement in Gaza, told The Independent last night that the violence would go on. "You are asking us to accept the fact of the Zionist occupation. How do you expect us to explain away the heavy suffering of the last year, and of the last 50 years?"