Peace Talks Do Not Have Oslo Written on Them

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Israeli and Palestinian leaders don't want a war, but they can't exactly afford to sign a peace agreement, either. And it's in the sullen no-man's-land between the two options that Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat are once again tentatively reaching out to each other. But judging from the proposals being floated by the Palestinian Authority right now, the talks both men will hold with President Clinton in Washington later this weeks are more likely to be exploratory "talks about talks" than any kind of speedy resumption of the Oslo Accord–based peace process that the President had hoped to wrap up at Camp David in August.

Israel on Monday nixed the suggestion by Arafat that a United Nations force be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza to protect Palestinians from the Israeli army. But a senior Palestinian official on Monday added the demand that the European Union and the United Nations join the U.S. in mediating future peace talks. Those calls reflect a growing sense that while they're exploring ways of restoring dialogue, the Palestinians may be reluctant to simply pick up the negotiation process where it left off at Camp David. And the Israelis may share that reluctance, if for their own reasons.

Agreeing to negotiate at all right now is difficult for the leaders on both sides. Barak's minority coalition now governs under the shadow of its constant vulnerability to being thrown out in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. And even if they're prepared to allow his government a period of grace amid the current turmoil, the violence of the past six weeks has reduced the Israeli public's confidence in the peace process to an all-time low. On the Palestinian side, overwhelming public skepticism toward the peace process has given way to increasingly open defiance of Arafat's efforts to restore calm. Even local leaders of his own Fatah organization have called for an escalation of the confrontation with Israel despite Arafat's attempts to rein in the street.

At the same time, it's clear that neither Arafat nor Barak wants an escalation. The fact that the cease-fire brokered last week by Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres appears to be taking root despite the continued impetus toward violent clashes suggests both sides may be looking for a way out of their current impasse. But exploring ways to resume a dialogue will likely rewind back a lot further than Camp David. And the idea of Washington sharing the mediation duties with others may not be unappealing to the next U.S. president. After all, as Bill Clinton has found out, it's a thankless task.