Why Barak and Arafat Can't Jump Through a Peace 'Window'

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Yasser Arafat has been meeting Israeli officials, and there's been a flurry of diplomacy throughout the region to try and restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. What are the prospects?

"Firstly, the goals are very limited. Egypt and France are trying to get Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face around a table again. What they talk about and achieve there is not the important thing, the important thing is getting them together. That's how they're seeing the first step. The second step would be to mix the desire of Barak to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians before February, when he faces a tough reelection battle, together with Arafat's fear of having to deal with a right-wing government. Mixing these desires and fears together, some Americans and Europeans feel, may lead to some kind of framework agreement."

Is a quick deal a realistic proposition?

"It may sound good when you're in Brussels, Paris or New York. On paper it's great, but on the ground, I think neither the Palestinian side nor the Israeli side is prepared for such a breakthrough. Today I was in Nablus, attending the funeral of three people who were shot dead literally at the same time as Arafat was meeting [Israeli foreign minister Shlomo] Ben Ami. At the funeral, I heard it plainly, clearly, that people were condemning the meeting between Arafat and Ben Ami. A friend of mine in Gaza today attended the 13th-anniversary rally of Hamas along with tens of thousands of Palestinians. The message there was to continue the armed struggle, and that the killings suffered on the Palestinian side should also be felt on the Israeli side. From these two examples, you can seen the mood in the West Bank and Gaza is not pro-talks. Arafat would face difficulties if he tried to make a deal now. After the meeting with Ben Ami, I asked a senior Palestinian official what had happened there. He told me, off the record, that he was ashamed. Why? 'Because,' he said, 'the Israelis are destroying my people and we are meeting with them.' "

Are the Israelis offering Arafat anything right now?

"They're offering to soften the closure. It's like that story about the rabbi whose approached by a man complaining that his house is too small, and the rabbi advises him to keep a goat, and then a cow, and then a horse and so on inside the house — and then he advises the man to remove them one by one, and the man feels better about how much space he has. This is what's happening here. I don't believe that Barak is in a position to give Arafat something dramatic on Jerusalem or on the settlements. The West Bank is crowded not only with settlements, but with political mines. And don't forget, he's in a very weak position. He's a caretaker prime minister now, and lacks support from the parliament. There's very little reason for optimism over a deal.

"And Arafat, too, may have made his position even more difficult. He's drawn every single Arab and Muslim around the world into the Palestinian problem, and that's going to restrict his own freedom of movement. A Tunisian sheik in Kashmir is now saying, 'That's my Jerusalem.' Every Arab who sent a check to support Arafat in this uprising will expect him to respect their concerns."

So is the Palestinian leadership reconciling itself to having to deal with Netanyahu once again?

"No, that's not the way the Palestinian Authority works. I asked an official recently, do you have a team preparing for how to operate if you have to deal with a Likud government? He laughed, and said you have to understand that we don't prepare, we simply react. Watching the Israelis handle the current crisis, you have to say they're lucky to have the Palestinians as their enemies. Without the Palestinians, they'd be in real trouble."