Why Albright's Paris Peace Talks Tanked

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There was never going to be a quick fix between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at the end of a week of rioting in which upward of 70 Palestinians and several Israelis have been killed. And the failure of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's latest effort to forge an agreement to end the violence may be a sign that the events of the past week have stiffened the Palestinian leader's resolve at the negotiating table. After storming out of a summit meeting in Paris Wednesday — and reportedly only being stopped by Secretary Albright running after him and shouting to security staff to close the U.S. embassy gates to stop him leaving — Arafat returned to the talks but refused to sign an agreement without the promise of an international commission of inquiry into the current violence. That demand was rejected by the Israeli prime minister, who then abandoned the second leg of the talks to be held Thursday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.

The two men had been working on an agreement involving Israel withdrawing some of its deployments around Palestinian towns, and the Palestinian Authority for its part keeping protestors away from the Israeli military outposts in Gaza and the West Bank that have been the flash-points of the last week's violence. But with his people — and the wider Arab world — enraged by Israel's actions, Arafat may be reluctant to be seen to be too easily drawn into new deals. Reports from the West Bank and Gaza suggest that efforts may already be underway to implement the cease-fire terms, although new clashes were reported in Gaza. But the breakdown in summitry is an indicator of the extent to which the recent violence may have reversed progress towards a final-status peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak's own domestic situation may have contributed to the breakdown, too. He faces a tough battle for political survival when his parliament reconvenes, and being subjected to the ritual dressing down that Arafat requires as cover for signing a new deal may be more than the Israeli leader can afford. And he may have been doing Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak a favor — thousands of Egyptian university students calling for "Holy War" against Israel clashed with security forces Wednesday, and Barak's arrival in Egypt at this point may have stirred up domestic turmoil.

Of course the leaders of the Middle East are long accustomed to reaching deals over the heads of their chagrined citizenry, and there's no reason to doubt that they'll carefully manage the current enmity to avoid it escalating into a full-blown war. But it's equally clear now that Arafat will feel emboldened against pressure to accept current U.S. and Israeli formulae on the future of Jerusalem. And that, together with the domestic political situation of each of his negotiating partners, is likely to postpone any final accord for months, if not years.