Leader of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Yasser Arafat voiced in Ramallah his readiness to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss ways of resuming peace dialogue. But the Palestinian leader did not specify the conditions for the meeting. He only pointed out his intention to urge Palestinian radicals to halt terrorist acts against the Israelis.
Nonetheless, Sharon's office reported the prime minister had not accepted the proposal. His statement runs that he is ready to restart talks only with those Palestinian representatives who have no relation to terrorism.
It is an open secret that Ariel Sharon has emphasised for several months now Yasser Arafat's involvement in terrorist activity by initiating, encouraging and financing terror, and therefore cannot be Israel's partner in peace talks.
However, the fact that Yasser Arafat has voiced his readiness to meet Sharon in the wake of the general elections in Israel is viewed as a landmark event by many observers. Arab world has now realised that if Israel's government is dominated by right-wing parties, the resumption of peace talks becomes a distant prospect as well as the formation of an independent Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are also mindful of the fact that the US would not allow Sharon to give up on talks at all. By many estimates, Washington has decided to break the deadlock of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff immediately after the operation in Iraq is over, and will not have anybody in its way, including the Israeli right-wingers.
Besides, Ariel Sharon may even be viewed as the most acceptable figure for restarting negotiations, against the background of prospective right-wing ministers of the Israeli government. Some ironical experts in Israel argue Ariel Sharon, the former "hawk", now looks like a "dove" in the company of such right-wing and religious hard-liners as Avigdor Lieberman, Beni Elon and Eli Yishai. Even in Likud, he looks far more peace-loving than, for one, Benyamin Netanyahu.
Therefore, Arab leaders are highly likely to be trying to engage Ariel Sharon in the peace dialogue. In particular, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did so immediately after the results of the Israeli general elections were announced. He personally phoned Sharon to congratulate him on his party's victory, and arranged to meet him.
Some sources even report Ariel Sharon's intention to forward his own peace initiative soon and a plan of settling the conflict with the Palestinians. In many estimates, the plan will doubtless be very tough and, in particular, will largely differ (to the benefit of Israel) from the famous "road map" adopted by "the Middle East quartet." And it goes without saying that it will be far more modest than the proposals the then premier, Ehud Barak, forwarded to Yasser Arafat in Camp David in summer 2000.
However, observers emphasise, the Palestinians should bear in mind that things will never be the same again, therefore they have no other option but take heed of the Middle East realities as of late January 2003. The latter include the victory of right-wingers in the general elections in Israel and the looming war in Iraq which cannot but affect them indirectly. The Israeli right-wingers, provided they form their own government, will hardly miss the opportunity of doing away with the Palestinians under the cover of Baghdad bombings. The outcome can vary here: the termination of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat's expulsion, the arrests of his closest allies, the division of the Authority into several "cantons", etc. In general, observers state, in this situation anything on the list of the Israeli right-wing politicians can be expected to happen.
There is a possibility of the Palestinians showing willingness to establish a peace dialogue with the Israelis, as a lesser evil. And they will have to deal with Ariel Sharon, the only candidacy available at the moment. The Israeli left-wing parties on whom the Palestinians pinned their hopes, have snowed under in the elections.
So, the last "argument" in this standoff will be the bomb on the Palestinian part, and Merkawa tanks and Apachi combat helicopters on the Israeli.