It May Not be a Yom Kippur War, But Don't Count on a Yom Kippur Peace

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Avoiding war rather than attaining peace is about the best the U.S. can hope to achieve in the Middle East right now. Washington appears to have walked Prime Minister Ehud Barak back from the brink after the Israeli leader had vowed to abandon the peace process unless violence in Palestinian territories had abated by Monday evening. Barak on Monday night announced an extension of his ultimatum and also agreed to attend a regional peace summit if President Clinton manages to convene one.

"We will act to restore calm to the extent that it depends on us, while also giving Yasser Arafat a certain additional time to do what he needs to do," said Israeli government spokesman Nachman Shai late on Monday. "There is intense international diplomatic activity which we cannot reject or ignore.'' Translation: Israel's U.S. patron has made clear that it regards the violence as a two-sided affair, and Israel can't afford to alienate its only reliable ally. Still, even if the proposed peace summit in Egypt takes place, nobody's betting on any breakthroughs.

Israel and the Palestinians are unlikely formally pronounce the peace process dead just yet — if for no other reason than because the leaders on both sides have staked their entire political fortunes on it. Then again, it's been the final phase of the peace process that has left both leaders teetering badly, with the momentum in Israeli politics swinging solidly behind the hawkish opposition, while Arafat's diminished authority in the face of challenges by Islamic militants and his own rank-and-file has never been more obvious. Neither man can easily afford to be seen to be making concessions.

The events of the past 12 days have highlighted what may be fatal flaws in the peace process, which may leave President Clinton spending his final months in office trying to avert a war rather than cement the final peace agreement for which he'd pressed so hard at Camp David. Indeed, the high-stakes battle for control over Jerusalem that began at Camp David when the sticking point became whether Israelis or Palestinians would have sovereignty in those parts of the city captured by Israel in 1967 has sparked a region-wide fire that could torch much of the progress all sides have made thus far. The current violence illustrates just how untenable the deal on Jerusalem offered by Israel at Camp David would be for Palestinians, and yet Barak will likely be forced now to retreat from even that offer.

The greatest weakness of current efforts to put the peace process back together is that they depend on both Arafat and Barak being able to muster the political support necessary to turn the political tide on both sides of the divide. And in both cases, that may be a tall order. Barak's domestic political weakness is forcing Barak to act tough, and he's now considering a unity government with the Likud party who've opposed the peace process all the way. And the mounting violence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is a frightening portent of the drift of Israeli domestic politics.

Arafat may not have to answer to a parliament, but even once he commits to it, he'll find it increasingly difficult to rein in a Palestinian street long skeptical of the value of his negotiating efforts. The attacks over the Lebanese border by the guerrillas of Hezbollah on Saturday may be more of a headache for the Palestinian leader than for Barak. Ever since Hezbollah's victory was acclaimed throughout the Arab world in the summer after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, young Palestinians skeptical of Arafat's peacemaking efforts have admiringly cited its example. Arafat is facing a direct challenge from the Islamist militants of Hamas and also some degree of mutiny in the ranks of his own Fatah movement — local leaders are issuing leaflets calling for war against Israel — and the Hezbollah attacks won't help him restore his authority.

Although Arafat and Barak are unlikely to pursue the path of war, they may struggle unsuccessfully to take the necessary steps back onto the path of peace. And Israelis and Palestinians may yet live for some time in the gray zone between the two.