Don't Bet on Palestinian Peace Pact This Year

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Bill Clinton may want to quietly drop Mideast peace from the trophy room of his presidency — because Israelis and Palestinians are already looking to the next U.S. president to resolve their dispute. Not only that, they're also shooting at each other. Fierce gun battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian police Monday left four Palestinians dead and a number of wounded on both sides in the worst violence since 1996. The outbreak follows protests demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the passing of yet another deadline for a framework agreement on "final status" issues with a deal nowhere in sight. "These protests are partly an effort by Arafat to stoke the fires in the hope of bringing out the American fire brigade to put pressure on the Israelis," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. "But he'll try to calm things down in the next couple of days because he doesn't want to create a momentum he can't easily stop." Meanwhile Arafat's chief negotiator, Yasser Abdel Rabbo, resigned Monday over the Palestinian leader's handling of the talks, while Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak faced a mutiny from key coalition partners over his plan to cede three West Bank villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem to Palestinian control.

Despite being publicly committed to concluding a final agreement by September, the two sides remain miles apart on key disputes such as the borders of a future Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem. And while they'll keep jockeying for position, they're likely to wait for a new U.S. administration before making any new dramatic moves. "Both privately admit they're unlikely to reach agreement this year," says Hamad. "And sources close to Arafat say he's already agreed, at the urging of President Clinton, to postpone his promised unlilateral declaration of a state until after the U.S. election. Both sides are also having to deal with mounting domestic challenges. Barak faces defections from his coalition, while concern over the reaction of the Palestinian street and of his Arab allies makes it almost impossible for Arafat to accept the current Israeli proposals on the West Bank and Jerusalem." The "peace of the brave" of which Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin spoke has long since followed the slain Israeli leader to the grave, and whatever messy outcome concludes the current process is likely to be, at best, the peace of the sullen. More ominously, though, the current breakdown may point to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state under conditions that amount to little more than a cease-fire.