Yasser Arafat blinked today in his diplomatic standoff with the Bush administration. That's not the language U.S. diplomats are using, but that's what happened after Secretary of State Powell postponed by 24 hours a meeting with the Palestinian leader.
Issuing a written statement today in the name of the Palestinian leadership under "the leadership of President Arafat," the statement condemned all attacks against civilians, Israelis and Palestinians. There was a specific reference to include yesterday's bombing in Jerusalem and, significantly, the statement was issued in Arabic.
Although many Israelis, government officials and ordinary citizens alike, dismissed the Palestinian statement as meaningless, it gave Powell and his negotiating team just enough political cover to go ahead and schedule a meeting with Arafat, a meeting he had put on hold after the latest Jerusalem bombing.
After spending the better part of the preceding week consulting with moderate Arab leaders from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and putting pressure on them to convince Arafat to enter a new negotiating round with the Israelis, Powell, aides say, was determined to follow through and hold talks himself with Arafat.
The bombing Friday afternoon in a Jerusalem market, carried out by a woman linked to Arafat's own Fatah movement, made Powell pause and renew President Bush's demand that the Palestinian leader issue a statement condemning terrorist attacks against civilians and the attack in Jerusalem in particular.
It took 24 hours for Arafat and his lieutenants to issue the statement, which Powell said late today met U. S. demands. All of this, however, amounts only to the prologue of the currently unfolding diplomatic effort.
The real story started when Powell met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Friday morning in a two-and-a-half hour, one-on-one session. Powell was not able to extract much from Sharon, who does not view Arafat as a serious negotiating partner.
Nor was Sharon willing to give Powell a timetable for his military to stop its ongoing operations in the so-called Palestinian controlled territories. However, it was a start and the two did discuss various ideas for resuming a political dialogue.
Now the stage moves to Arafat's heavily damaged headquarters in Ramallah, these days something of a surreal location for diplomatic talks. Israeli tanks and troops ring the compound and have confined Arafat to a couple of rooms inside. There is no running water and the stench is said to be unmistakable.
Arafat can be expected to be as unyielding as Sharon, especially in tomorrow's meeting.
Powell and his aides hope to lay the groundwork to persuade the Palestinian leader there is no future in terrorism, and he must change his direction back toward resuming security and political talks with his adversary, as distasteful as that may be.
Powell is likely to have a second round of meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister late Sunday after he returns from Ramallah.
Talk of success is so premature at this point it does not even arise in question and answer sessions.
Secretary Powell says he's here as long as necessary, that the Bush administration will not abandon its effort to get back to negotiations about peace.
Powell will soon be able to make an assessment as to whether or not Israeli and Palestinian leaders are in any kind of mood to make concessions of any consequence and thus move the region away from the present state of violence and back to something resembling peaceful coexistence.
By Charles M. Wolfson