Clinton Fails in Mideast, But the Sky Won't Fall

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President Clinton may have failed to cajole Israelis and Palestinians into a peace deal ahead of their September 13 deadline, but nobody's expecting a return to war. The peace process was never quite the cliffhanger it's been portrayed as by a U.S. president desperate for a foreign policy trophy and by a media corps seeking to breathe new drama into what has become one of the more pedestrian staples of the last decade's news coverage. Yasser Arafat may have threatened publicly to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state if no deal was reached by the deadline, but off the record his aides have always made it abundantly clear that he won't tempt fate while the U.S. election season heats up and Ehud Barak's beleaguered government faces mounting pressure on its right flank. And the Israeli leader, whose immediate priority now is to simply survive in office when his parliament reconvenes in the fall, can't afford to allow relations with the Palestinians to collapse either. So Arafat and Barak will keep talking and continue to cooperate on the basis of the existing web of interim agreements and channels of communications. The only difference will be that now they'll have to get along without Bill Clinton.

Both sides have an overriding interest in avoiding a return to war, but neither one is capable of making the compromises the other side demands as a prerequisite for a final agreement. That means the window of opportunity for Arafat, Barak and Clinton to conclude a deal may now be shutting; but then again, the fundamental differences that continue to divide them may have fatally undermined any deal forced through under these circumstances. After all, compelling Arafat to concede on Jerusalem would imperil not only himself, but also pro-Western Arab governments from Egypt to Saudi Arabia who would be expected to underwrite such a deal. And with a majority of the Knesset voting against Barak at last count, the Israeli leader's ability to deliver is considerably diminished — and the experience of having to negotiate with Benjamin Netanyahu in implementing a deal struck by his predecessor will be one the Palestinians won't be looking to repeat. So it may suit both sides now to simply continue making piecemeal agreements rather than trying to conclude a final deal, even if that leaves high and dry a U.S. president who's invested so much of his time and energy to this quest. The President used his swan song appearance before the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday to urge both sides to compromise and to warn that the opportunity for peace was fleeting. Perhaps. But it may be, in the end, that what is fleeting is the opportunity for a Clinton-authored peace.