Arafat and Barak: Not a Marriage Made in Heaven

  • Share
  • Read Later

Last week, at a limousine-clogged U.N. Millennium Summit on Manhattan's East Side, Bill Clinton pleaded with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to show more bend in the positions that divide them on a peace accord. The opportunity for a peace accord "is fleeting and about to pass," Clinton worried. But after rounds with both men in a regal 35th-floor suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the President came up empty-handed. "I have no breakthroughs to report," Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart said after the two separate meetings.

Barak and Arafat still don't like what they're hearing from each other in the way of proposals. And they still don't like each other.

Throughout their almost year-long negotiations, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat have tried to appear warm and friendly when the cameras are turned on them. But in private, their relationship has been tense. By the beginning of this year, Barak was fed up with Arafat's tantrums over Israeli land transfers, arguing that the outbursts blocked progress toward a comprehensive peace agreement. What's more, after every concession Israel made on land transfers or prisoner returns, Arafat ignored the gesture and produced new demands, Barak complained.

For his part, Arafat felt insulted. Barak was giving him no say in what land was being transferred and, even worse, stiffing him on it in public. In early February, for example, Arafat had asked Barak at a private dinner if he would include three Jerusalem suburbs in the next round of land transfers. Barak said he'd consider it. But two days later, Arafat got his answer — from an Israeli radio station. Israeli officials had leaked to the station that Barak would not turn over the suburbs. Since it had been a personal request, Arafat had assumed he'd get his answer, yes or no, privately from Barak. Barak insisted his decision had been inadvertently leaked before he'd had a chance to tell Arafat. The Israeli prime minister had been meticulous about protocol in the past. But Arafat fumed that this was a public affront designed to embarrass him.

It took State Department negotiator Dennis Ross several weeks to heal that personal rift, but it hadn't been easy. Feeling like a parent dealing with two angry children locked in their rooms, Ross abruptly left Jerusalem at one point to force Arafat and Barak to speak to each other instead of conveying messages through him.

During last July's Camp David summit, Arafat and Barak met only a couple of times in direct negotiations. They had aides handle most of the direct bargaining. The two men ate occasional meals together with Clinton or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sitting between them, but those sessions were strained. Barak came to Camp David with his briefcase stuffed with new ideas to break the deadlock. Arafat came largely cemented in pre-summit positions and only late in the negotiations did those stands begin to crack slightly.

Barak wanted Clinton to deliver to Arafat an ultimatum during his Millennium Summit meeting with the Palestinian leader last week. Barak had taken huge political risks in making the concessions he did during Camp David and couldn't wait forever for Arafat to respond. Clinton had to force Arafat to begin making hard choices. Was he ready to bend on East Jerusalem and win a Palestinian state for his compromises or was he going to settle for deadlock? Barak was willing to take bold steps but it was time for Arafat to take risks as well, the Israeli leader argued. Barak spent last week at the Millennium Summit urging other heads of state among the 149 who attended the largely ceremonial event to be blunt with Arafat as well. If he bends, he gets statehood, an end to the conflict and a solution to his refugee problem, according to Barak's pitch.

Clinton pleaded with Arafat during their hour- and-a-half meeting but chose to keep the arm- bending private. At best, the White House hoped that when Arafat returned home to chair the conference of the Palestinian Central Council over the weekend, he would head off any move among its hard-liners to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on Wednesday, the original deadline. Arafat did that. But it still doesn't represent enough progress for Clinton to convene a second Camp David summit.