It is now one year since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election victory on 6 February 2001. The fears over the advent to power of a man of violence whose career will always be tainted by his role in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila now look to be amply justified. Sharon has taken the fight to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in what can only be seen as a deliberate strategy to eliminate the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and fatally undermine the fledgling institutions of Palestinian statehood. Sharon has all the while paid lip service to the need to continue peace negotiations, but the suspicion has been growing that his real agenda has remained unchanged since his political career started in the mid 1970s: colonisation of the West Bank and the defeat of Palestinian nationalism.
In recent months, Sharon has been able to seize the initiative from Arafat. His primary means has been to persist with assassinations of Palestinians claimed by Israel to be involved in violence. Each such attack has the effect of inciting further Palestinian attacks. The most recent instance was the 4 February killing of five members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Gaza. The group has not carried out any attacks on Israeli targets since the summer. On 7 February, two Israelis died when a Palestinian gunman attacked a settlement in the Jordan valley.
Sharon arrived in Washington the same day for talks with President Bush, whose administration has reverted to a plainly pro-Israeli position after a brief interlude in which it attempted to frame a more balanced policy.
One of the central issues for discussion between the US and Israel has been the prospect of finding a new Palestinian political leadership to replace Arafat. Israeli officials have held talks in recent weeks with Palestinian figures they describe as more credible interlocutors than Arafat. They include Legislative Assembly speaker Ahmed Qorei, and security chiefs Jibril al-Rajoub and Mohamed Dahlan.
Arafat, marooned in Ramallah, has resorted to giving a stream of interviews and statements to the Western press. These include an article published in the New York Times on 3 February, in which he explained Palestinian objectives and expressed understanding for Israeli concerns about the Palestinian demand for a right of return.