Why Clinton May Yet Broker Palestinian Peace

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It's not quite now or never, but certainly now-or-a-lot-later for Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. President Clinton held talks with the Israeli leader in Portugal Thursday, hoping to jump-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian track of the Middle East peace process. Both sides had previously committed themselves to concluding a final agreement by September, but that looks increasingly difficult as major differences remain unresolved: over how much of the West Bank Israel will cede to an eventual Palestinian state; over the status of East Jerusalem; over the future of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that Israel has precluded from returning to their original homes inside the Jewish state. In addition, Arafat's room for compromise has been narrowed by his constituency's enthusiasm over the success of the Hezbollah guerrilla movement in forcing Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

Still, that doesn't mean they're just going through the motions with the late-term U.S. president. "There's great impetus on both sides to resolve as much as they can before Bill Clinton turns out the lights on his presidency," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "There's a tremendous appreciation on both sides that if they fail to reach a deal now, they won't have one until considerable time has passed from now."

That realization comes both from the knowledge that it would take a while to get in step with a new administration in Washington — especially if it were headed by George W. Bush — and the fear that past saber-rattling could lead to bloody conflict. Arafat warned, when the September deadline was set last fall, that if the talks failed to produce an outcome by that date, he would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. But he may have backed away from a confrontational scenario. "Senior Palestinian officials have indicated that Arafat will wait at least until the end of the year, to give Clinton time to broker a deal and to avoid creating a showdown that could become an issue in the U.S. presidential election," says Beyer. "Besides, Barak has also indicated that if Arafat takes unilateral action, he will do the same and simply annex East Jerusalem and those parts of the West Bank Israel wants to keep. That would set Israel and the Palestinians up for a violent showdown, which neither side can really afford." In which case Clinton may have one last shot at adding a final Israeli-Palestinian peace that legacy trophy case.