Bill Who? Arafat and Barak Look Beyond Clinton

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Israel's coalition crisis may have hobbled Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but he's not half as lame a duck as President Clinton. And that's why nobody's expecting any breakthroughs from Secretary of State Albright's Mideast visit this week. Barak managed to persuade the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to stay on board by doling out the cash and favors they'd demanded as the price for their support. But the victory emboldened Shas, who immediately put Barak on notice that they'd be subjecting any agreements he reaches with the Palestinians to careful scrutiny before delivering their votes. And that further limits Barak's room to make concessions to Palestinian demands over land, Jerusalem and refugees that may be necessary to break the logjam.

Barak's reluctance to make concessions, however, is now driven as much by President Clinton's domestic political situation as by his own. The Israelis are already preparing for a post-Clinton world, and have little incentive to do the bidding of a lame-duck administration which can't, in an election season, afford to be seen to be pressuring the Jewish state. Being painfully aware of the Americans' inability at this stage to help him get the territorial concessions he needs to sell any final peace agreement to his own people, Arafat, too, has little incentive to conclude a deal. In fact, in the short term the Palestinian leader's priority is his effort to rebuild relations with Syria in a bid to strengthen his hand in future negotiations. In other words, neither side now holds much hope of an agreement presided over by President Clinton. But they're quite happy to welcome Madeleine Albright — and even Clinton himself — into the pool to join them in treading water.