Mideast Peace Has Missed its Moment

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Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright may still hold out hope for the Middle East peace process, but they haven’t exactly been able to infect the region with their optimism. Israelis and Palestinians are still shooting at each other despite Washington’s best efforts to conjure up a cease-fire, and the momentum of violence is propelling Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in opposite directions, dimming the already diminished prospects for any breakthrough in the search for a final peace agreement on the Clinton administration’s watch. Indeed, Friday’s clashes around the Al Aksa mosques that started with Palestinian youths pelting Israeli worshippers at the Western Wall with stones, and ended with Israeli riot police once again storming the compound that houses Islam’s third holiest site may well portend a new round of clashes following a week in which more than 80 people, mostly Palestinian, had been killed and U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire agreement had come to naught.

Washington has spent much of the past year coaxing Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat out onto a ledge where, it was hoped, they’d be able to conclude an historic pact ending five decades of conflict between their two peoples. Now both men have dived back through their windows, each making common cause with the hard-liners in his camp and taking potshots whenever the other appears in the window. Albright may gamely suggest that she made progress when the she brought both men together in Paris, but there were scant grounds for optimism in a shouting match in which the only way to prevent walkouts was to lock the gates.

Barak then skipped the scheduled follow-up in Egypt, giving the finger not only to Arafat but to the pro-Western Arab regime on whose support the peace process most strongly depends. Instead he flew home to pursue the idea of a coalition government with the right-wing Likud party, whose leader, Ariel Sharon, had lit the match on the latest violence with a provocative visit to the Muslim compound atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. And an alliance with Likud may be his only hope of surviving as his own parliamentary majority remains in doubt, and the killing of nine Israeli-Arab protestors by security forces will likely have cost Barak the all-important Israeli-Arab vote at the next election. So the last week of violence has spawned a new sense of unity in Israeli politics, but it’s a hawkish unity that will restrain Barak even more tightly from making the concessions necessary for any final agreement. In other words, Israel may now rewind its negotiating stance to one well short of its Camp David positions.

Arafat, for his part, is in danger of being eclipsed by the very violence that his administration has been happy to encourage (to underline the depth of Palestinian resistance to conceding sovereignty over East Jerusalem to Israel). With his back to the wall under strong pressure from Washington to accept Barak’s terms on the Holy City, Arafat found relief in a wave of Palestinian and Arab anger that showed just how untenable the U.S. solution would be. But Palestinians have grown increasingly skeptical over the value of Arafat’s negotiating efforts over recent years, and the return to direct action and even armed struggle represents a mortal danger to the aging Palestinian leader. To be sure, those forms of politics shift the center of gravity in Palestinian politics away from Arafat’s negotiating efforts and towards Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants skeptical of, or downright hostile to, the peace process. The rank and file of Arafat’s own Fatah movement have fought side by side with the Islamist militants, a number of them recently freed from Palestinian prisons. The objective of these militants will be to exacerbate the violence and burn Arafat’s bridges with the Israelis, and in current conditions their insurgent calls may have more resonance even among Arafat’s supporters than appeals for calm and renewed negotiations. There’s a real danger now that the clashes over Jerusalem may have accelerated a leadership shift in Palestinian politics away from the secular negotiators around Arafat and towards the Islamists for whom compromise is akin to apostasy.

The Islamist challenge effects not only Arafat, but also the regional allies on whom he and Washington have depended for political cover in the peace process. The rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are all under mounting pressure from their citizenry to toughen their stance against Israel, particularly now that the holy sites in Jerusalem are at issue. And that’s a challenge against which those regimes have little political answer — Egypt, for example, is soon to hold another of its elections whose level of democracy makes Slobodan Milosevic look like Thomas Jefferson. And the irony is that Washington’s Arab allies cannot afford to be any more democratic if they’re to maintain their pro-Western orientation.

And then, of course, we have to reckon with the fact that the oil price is back up at 1990 levels. You may remember that when the U.S. was marshalling a posse to go after Saddam Hussein when he was threatening to take control of two thirds of the world’s oil reserves, it was a lot less indulgent of Israel than the Clinton administration has been. Mindful of the need to keep his Arab allies on board against Saddam, President Bush even threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Israel unless settlement activity in Palestinian territories was halted. And the resurgent oil price means that the U.S. requires move favors from its Arab allies than it did a few years ago. If the Saudis are going to go out to bat for Washington in OPEC, they may require a quid-pro-quo that the U.S. back off pressing Arafat to give up Palestinian claims on Jerusalem. So even on Washington’s part there may be factors emerging that militate against pushing too hard on the peace track.

U.S. officials believe that the factors which brought Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table in the first place will ultimately get them back there again. But a lot more people on both sides may die before that happens. For now, it's not only unlikely that a peace agreement will happen while President Clinton is still in office but it's also quite possible that the Israeli and Palestinian signatures on any final agreement will not be those of Barak and Arafat. And the shape that agreement may not be quite the same as the one that was being forged at Camp David.