Arafat Confronts a Moment of Truth

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Ehud Barak has been complaining for some weeks now that Israel no longer has a partner for peace. And while that may be part of the blame game for the violent clashes in Palestinian territories that have continued despite Tuesday's cease-fire agreement, it may contain a more profound truth: Yasser Arafat's claim to leadership over the Palestinians has never looked more shaky. Doubts are growing throughout the Middle East over whether the aging, ailing Palestinian leader will be able to deliver on undertakings given to President Clinton at Sharm el-Sheik to rein in militants on his own side in exchange for Israeli troop withdrawals from the entrances to Palestinian towns.

The vow by the militant Islamists of Hamas to fight on despite Arafat's agreement obviously comes as no surprise, but of far deeper concern to the Palestinian leader is the fact that much of the grassroots leadership of his own Fatah organization has been equally, and as openly, scornful of the cease-fire. Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has played a central role in organizing the current intifada, publicly dismissed the Sharm el-Sheik agreement Tuesday, and vowed to continue to fight to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat may have to look long and hard to find a constituency of Palestinians with any faith in the agreement he brought home this week, and yet that agreement requires that he deploy his security forces to rearrest the hundreds of Hamas activists freed from Palestinian prisons in recent weeks and, if necessary, to face down Fatah militants. And for a Palestinian leader of considerably diminished political authority, that's a tall order.

Even if Arafat is able to rein in the militants over the next day or two, the cease-fire — like the peace process it's supposed to save — is inherently vulnerable to sabotage by the hard-liners on both sides who oppose it. A terrorist bombing or even a dramatic shooting by Hamas or other hard-liners would force Prime Minister Barak, in deep political peril at home, to respond harshly, which would in turn prompt the Palestinian leadership to respond in kind. And another stroll around the Temple Mount by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon or even more shootings of Palestinian civilians by anti-peace Israeli settlers in the West Bank could restart the cycle of violence from the other side. So, despite the cease-fire, a "final status" peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians may have moved from the back burner into the deep freeze. Rather than a comprehensive peace, the best the two sides may be able to hope for in the coming months, if not years, is effective crisis management.