Uh-Oh! Palestinians Balk as Barak Stalls

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Ehud Barak may be lauded in Western and Arab capitals as a champion of peace, but now that they've actually got down to dealing, the Palestinians have found they've bitten into a tough cookie. Barak and Yasser Arafat had a meeting Tuesday aimed at restarting the peace process, and the outcome was anything but positive. "The atmosphere in the meeting was tense and the gulf between the two sidesí positions remains deep and wide," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. Despite Arafatís reluctant agreement to respond in two weeks to Barakís proposal to delay land transfers required by the Wye accord, the Palestinian leader insisted Wednesday that his answer was no and that full implementation of Wye was essential to restart the process.

Domestic political constraints appear to be preventing Barak from implementing the land transfers, which would leave a number of Israeli settlements as islands in Palestinian territory. "Barak doesnít want to create a crisis in his own government this early on, by moving against the settlers and possibly provoking some of his coalition partners to withdraw," says Hamad. "But this isnít a new issue, and as far as the Palestinians are concerned, itís an Israeli issue. Arafat, too, is under immense pressure from within his own ranks to deliver on the promises of the peace process." Adding to Arafat's problems is that Palestinian concerns are of diminishing importance among Arab leaders, such as Syria's Hafez al-Assad, most of whom are eager to cement a long-term regional peace. That, and President Clintonís coaxing, may eventually force Arafat to accept Barakís terms. But it wonít placate the mounting impatience on the Palestinian streets.