MORE than one drama has been written in which two implacable opponents face each other on principle almost to the death and then are both replaced by their more moderate supporters who quickly reach an accommodation with each other. Are we seeing just such a plot in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute?

Yassir Arafat's position has been weakened recently and his speech this week admitting errors and acknowledging the need for reforms was woefully lacking in specific proposals. Ariel Sharon has lost the support of his Likud party over his plan to evacuate the Gaza strip and is considering whether a new coalition with the Labour opposition would save him. Neither of these characters can be counted out just yet. Mr Arafat will offer some small concessions to his critics but do nothing that weakens his position fundamentally. It is hardly necessary to say that Mr Sharon is a fighter who is never more dangerous than when his back is to the wall. Nonetheless, the weakness of both men is that they do not really represent the broad current opinion of their people but rather that of outmoded political positions; ultimately this may be the cause of their downfall.

IN the meantime there is a third character in the drama who, however, has no lines to deliver because of an impending election. President Bush must be furious with Mr Sharon for manoeuvring him into a position at their Washington meeting in April whereby he appeared to support the Israeli prime minister in an internal struggle in his party back home. Sharon has now lost that struggle and in doing so has made Mr Bush look foolish. Will a third character in this drama be replaced 'ere the year is out?


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