Barak and Arafat Agree to Talks but They're Unlikely to Kiss and Make Up

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Peace right now may be more dangerous than war to Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. And so while they might have agreed to attend a peace summit in Egypt on Monday, both men will attend under sufferance and do their best to signal their constituencies back home that they're acting tough. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Saturday that he'd convinced Arafat to attend a meeting in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh with Barak, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and President Clinton. But last Thursday's dramatic exchanges — the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, followed by Israeli air strikes on Palestinian Authority installations throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including Arafat's headquarters — have made it more difficult than ever for either side to make a quick return to negotiations. Barak had to know that bombing Arafat's headquarters and his police buildings was unlikely to get him talking peace any time soon, and the Israeli leader's move to draw into his government hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon — the man whose provocative visit to the precincts of the Islamic holy sites atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount touched off the current wave of violence — was a signal to the Palestinians that all bets are off. Similarly, Arafat has to have known that the Israeli leader can't return to talks while Palestinian security forces are failing to keep the peace. And not only have they failed, as in Thursday's lynching, they've consciously reneged on existing security agreements by opening their prison doors and freeing dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants in recent days.

Both Barak and Arafat found their leadership imperiled by the final months of the peace process, and both are making common cause with their hard-line opposition in order to avoid being eclipsed. Barak is in danger of being forced to call new elections when Israel's parliament convenes later this month — elections that analysts believe he is in serious danger of losing — while Arafat's authority over even his own rank and file has been called into question by the violence over the last three weeks. The momentum of violence makes an early return to negotiations politically dangerous for both, which may be why leaders on both sides have begun accusing the other of killing the peace process. That said, neither man has an interest in a full-blown war, which Israel would win militarily but lose politically, in that its relations with its neighbors would be set back decades and it would face a new Lebanon-type situation of having to rule by occupation over an entirely hostile population. Rather than a bold new peace agreement, Monday's talks are likely to produce more limited cease-fire agreements. Because when the parties reconvene in Egypt, the most notable reality will be that Camp David will seem like a distant memory.