Why Super Tuesday May Help Spur Mideast Peace

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It may be no coincidence that Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak picked Super Tuesday as the date to patch up their differences: The imminent changing of the presidential guard in Washington creates a compelling incentive for Israelis and Palestinians to do their utmost to conclude a final peace deal before the year is out. Arafat and Barak met Tuesday night near Tel Aviv, and broke a monthlong deadlock over the issue of a third round of Israeli troop withdrawals from West Bank land — Barak put aside his earlier reluctance, and agreed to a third withdrawal by June, the details of which haven't been specified. If precedent is any indicator, the concession may prove to be largely symbolic once the military mapmakers start doing their work (the Palestinians want villages near Jerusalem; Israel tends to hand over arid countryside), but they reflect a renewed sense of urgency on both sides to break the logjam. They've reportedly agreed to a new May deadline for the framework agreement on a final peace deal that was supposed to have been completed by February, and still hope to have finalized the last details by September.

Arafat has promised his people that they will have their state — or statelet, judging by the amount of territory he currently controls — this year with or without a peace deal, but behind the defiant words lies the realization that the U.S. election could set the peace process back by at least a year. It could easily take a Gore administration that long to find its political bearings before it can play what has now become Washington's indispensable matchmaking role, while a Bush administration remains a great unknown for both sides. GOP conservatives have tended to back their Israeli counterparts, but the last Bush presidency was — for reasons ranging from being less reliant on pro-Israel donors to the need to maintain Arab support for the anti-Saddam alliance — far more willing than Clinton to get tough with Israel to promote the peace process. Both sides, then, have reason to rush to finish the deal before President Clinton clears out his desk.