Arafat-Clinton Meeting Is Really Just a Courtesy Call

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Even before he became a lame-duck President, Bill Clinton may have lost his grip on the Middle East peace process. But when he meets Yasser Arafat Thursday, the President will certainly find the Palestinian leader considerably less responsive to Washington than he's been over the past seven years. Arafat's domestic political situation makes any near-term move to revive the Oslo peace process unlikely, and the Palestinian leader is about to make life a little more difficult for President Clinton with his demand for a U.N.-mandated protection force to be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. That's a nonstarter for the Israelis, and therefore, probably, for President Clinton, too, but that won't deter Arafat — he's taking it to the U.N. Security Council Friday, where he'll get a far more sympathetic hearing. And that, of course, may prompt Washington next week to use its veto in the council at some political cost among its moderate Arab allies.

Although Arafat appears to have been working to implement the cease-fire agreement brokered by Israeli leader Shimon Peres last week, he's swimming against a tide of Palestinian anger that militates against any resumption of political negotiations. Local leaders of Arafat's own Fatah organization have openly defied his cease-fire efforts, and the assassination of Bethlehem Fatah leader Hussein Abayat Thursday by a rocket fired at his van from an Israeli helicopter may signal a dramatic escalation of violence despite President Clinton's best efforts.

The U.S. leader may find himself unable to do much more than commiserate when Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak visits Washington Sunday. Even if he was inclined to return to the negotiating table, Barak's minority coalition government survives only at the pleasure of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which has bolted once before. And the hawkish opposition Likud party has vowed to bring Barak down if he resumes negotiations on the basis of the offers he made at Camp David.

Not only has the peace process that Clinton had hoped to triumphantly mediate gone into the deep freeze, the President also faces the unhappy prospect of launching an investigation into the recent violence. The commission, headed by former senator George Mitchell, was the price for the cease-fire the President brokered at Sharm El Sheik — the Palestinians had demanded a U.N. investigation — and it includes a former Turkish president, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Norway's foreign minister. But it may be beyond even Mitchell's legendary diplomatic skill to produce an inquiry that doesn't enrage one side or the other. Inquiries thus far by such reputable human rights agencies as Amnesty International have chastised the Palestinian Authority over specific incidents such as the notorious lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, but have harshly criticized the Israelis in general for what the human rights group charges is a constant excessive use of lethal force. Whatever it says about Palestinian conduct, the panel will be forced to take a critical look at Israeli conduct, and that may turn the probe itself into something of a hot potato for Clinton.

That official line that nobody's expecting much of Clinton's back-to-back meetings with Arafat and Barak is no longer simply a case of that old diplomatic trick of diminishing expectations. The protagonists know that the Olso process is over. They know, too, that they will ultimately have to make peace, but it may take years for them to figure out a new formula. Indeed, rather than get burned the way President Clinton has by getting too close, the next administration may be content to simply send him to the region as a powerless peace emissary, Jimmy Carter–style.