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Barak's Domestic Woes Bode Ill for Camp David

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Two lame ducks and an ailing autocrat isn't much of a recipe for a peace deal — and the odds are lengthening against an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough at Tuesday's Camp David summit. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, joined President Clinton in the lame duck corner Sunday when his coalition collapsed following the walkout of three of his partners, forcing him to delay his departure for Washington Monday to face down a crucial no-confidence motion in parliament by a mere seven votes. But even before two religious parties and one representing Russian immigrants bolted in protest against Barak's peacemaking style, the gulf between the Israeli leader's final offer and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's bottom line may have been too wide to be bridged by a U.S. administration that will be out of office six months from now. Barak's coalition crisis will only narrow his scope for concessions.

The Israeli leader still believes he could sell a final deal to his voters over the heads of their elected representatives in a referendum, but he's going into the summit looking over his right shoulder, and that bodes ill for the prospects of actually achieving an agreement. Because although the ailing septuagenarian Yasser Arafat may be the effective president-for-life of the Palestinians, concern over his own legacy — particularly the fear of being remembered as a traitor rather than a savior — has him going to Washington looking over his left shoulder. He even invited members of two left-wing factions opposed to the Oslo Accords to join his delegation (the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine accepted, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine demurred). And Arafat's aides proclaimed over the weekend that any deal the leader reaches would be put to the vote in a referendum involving all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the millions who live abroad.

This may simply be posturing, since Arafat — not exactly a Palestinian Thomas Jefferson at the best of times — is unlikely to orchestrate what could well be his own career-defining humiliation. But since Hezbollah's victory in forcing an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon reminded his supporters of the merits of militancy, the Palestinian leader has been taking an increasingly hard line, painting himself into a corner from which a saleable compromise may be beyond his reach.

Throw into the mix a U.S. president who, both men know, will soon lose control over the diplomatic and financial levers that have enticed and cajoled them this far, and the chances of this Camp David summit achieving the sort of historic breakthrough as Jimmy Carter's 1978 confab with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are increasingly remote. President Clinton may have chosen the venue in the hope that the historical precedent would weigh on the minds of his guests, but unfortunately for him its outcome will invite comparison, too. And the U.S. president may be about to learn that you can't reheat a soufflÚ.