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.