Clinton-Barak Lovefest Leaves Arafat Scorned

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He may not admit it, but Yasser Arafat probably misses Benjamin Netanyahu because Washingtons love affair with Ehud Barak may put the Palestinian leader in an uncomfortable position. "We dont accept this," Arafat said Tuesday after Barak and President Clinton agreed on a 15-month peace timetable that appeared to tie the stalled implementation of the Wye River agreement to the conclusion of "final status" talks with the Palestinians. Although Barak hastened to reassure the Palestinian leader that Wye would be speedily implemented, the issue highlighted Arafats political weakness. "Arafat cant challenge Barak because he cant afford a confrontation with Washington," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. "The U.S. is less inclined to put pressure on Barak than it was on Netanyahu, and thats a problem for Arafat his support among Palestinians is weak, and hell struggle to make the compromises required by the peace process if not seen to be delivering on the land transfers and prisoner releases promised at Wye." In other words, the Palestinian leaders political fate may now be in Baraks hands.

Arafat moved Tuesday to shore up his support by meeting with Egypts President Hosni Mubarak and by extending an olive branch to George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, leaders of radical Damascus-based Palestinian guerrilla factions opposed to the peace process. Syria has ordered Habash and Hawatmeh to end their armed struggle as it prepares to negotiate its own peace deal with Israel, and Arafat hopes that reconciling with them will isolate the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, whose terrorist suicide attacks are the main threat to the peace process. But Hamas may not be feeling any urgency to strike. "They'll only feel the need to act once Barak and Arafat actually seal an agreement," Hamad says. Until then, theyre happy to watch the Palestinian leader sweat.