Why Clinton Is Leaning on Arafat

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OK, Yasser, the party's over. President Clinton turned on the lights Friday in a bid to halt Chairman Arafat's reveling in resurgent support following his refusal during the Camp David talks to back down on Jerusalem. After all, the Palestinian leader now has to come up with an alternative, and President Clinton issued a sharp warning Friday against Arafat's carrying out his vow to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. "If it happens, there will inevitably be consequences not just here but throughout the world," Mr. Clinton told an Israeli interviewer. "I mean that things will happen." Indeed, Washington would find it impossible to recognize a Palestinian state declared without Israeli consent on the eve of an election, and Capitol Hill would almost certainly move to block some $80 million in U.S. aid earmarked for Arafat's administration.

More immediately, of course, any unilateral declaration of a state would immediately plunge Israelis and Palestinians into a bruising battle for land. Arafat right now controls a Rorschach pattern of enclaves comprising most of Gaza and some 40 percent of the West Bank, intermingled with Israeli settlements and military facilities. The failure at Camp David makes it unlikely that Israel will move any time soon to complete the third withdrawal required by the Oslo Accords, much less give up the further 45 percent of the West Bank Arafat has demanded. And that means potentially violent confrontations throughout the territory if Arafat makes his move, which may be why Israelis and Palestinian negotiators have already resumed contact, and plan to pick up where they left off at Camp David in talks scheduled for Sunday. Because as difficult as it is for them to reach an agreement, neither side can afford to hand the strategic initiative to the hard-liners in each camp. They may have failed to conclude a deal in Maryland, but they're talking as they were before, better apprised of each other's bottom lines.

But Washington's not simply scolding Arafat. More importantly, it's dispatched a senior State Department official on a discreet tour of Arab capitals to discuss the Jerusalem issue — cajoling Arafat into a deal on the Holy City will be impossible without the backing of a pan-Arab consensus, and Washington may be inclined to lean on Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take some responsibility for fashioning a compromise. The art of compromise, as ever, will be finding a solution that each side can sell as a victory. And that's not at all inconceivable: Jerusalem's importance to each side, after all, is first and foremost symbolic. And in the language of symbolism, the same place can have a profoundly different meaning for each side. Therein lies the problem of Jerusalem for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that duality of meaning may also contain the seed of a solution.