Hopes Slim at New Mideast Talks

  • Share
  • Read Later

Israeli soldiers question a Palestinian man at a checkpoint in Hebron

Having stood his ground at Camp David, Yasser Arafat is unlikely to back down now despite warnings that his window of opportunity — in the form of President Clinton and Ehud Barak — is closing. Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders are to meet Tuesday in Washington for an eleventh-hour attempt to broker a peace agreement, as the violence that has claimed more than 360 lives over the past 12 weeks rages unabated. But the eleventh hour, of course, tolls not for Arafat, but for the Clinton administration, whose tenure expires on January 20, and for Ehud Barak's caretaker government, which faces a tough reelection battle when Israelis vote on February 6.

Barak urgently needs at least a substantial interim peace agreement if he's to beat off the challenge of Benjamin Netanyahu when Israel goes to the polls — presuming Netanyahu can prevail over the legal obstacles to his candidacy — and President Clinton would dearly like to close out on a note of triumph. The specter of a right-wing Israeli government and a more distant Bush administration will be used to tempt Arafat to conclude a final peace deal while his Camp David partners are still in place, although there's also considerable Palestinian skepticism about being stampeded into compromises with lame ducks. Palestinian sources have indicated that the Washington talks have been convened under pressure from the Americans and Israelis, and have suggested that Arafat is wary of a repeat of the Camp David scenario where U.S. and Israeli domestic political considerations rushed the process beyond its objective limits at that point, setting up a showdown over Jerusalem that erupted on the streets once negotiations broke down.

A different approach

The Palestinians were not alone in expressing caution over weekend. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney told ABC News that "there are concerns that the way the Clinton administration operated, at least in the past year or so, in the Middle East [has] made it more difficult to reach a settlement," and suggested that his administration would try to avoid the mistake of pushing for a final agreement on Jerusalem. Cheney's comments underline the expectation that the new Bush administration will eschew President Clinton's activist, micromanaging style to Mideast peace, and may adopt a less optimistic approach. The stated intention of President-elect Bush's foreign policy team is to formulate policy on the basis of a more clearly defined U.S. national interest, and that may make the new administration more inclined to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a problem to be managed, rather than one that is within Washington's power or scope of responsibility to resolve.

The possibility of Barak's imminent departure and the approach of the Bush administration may be used by Israeli and U.S. officials this week to present the current round of talks as Yasser Arafat's last chance to achieve a deal over Palestinian statehood. But it's unlikely that the Israelis will be able to offer much more than they did at Camp David — and the political pressure against Arafat's accepting even that offer is considerably greater now that Palestinians have been burying about 25 of their young people a week since the end of September in what they've defined as a battle for Jerusalem.

Getting to know Condi and Colin?

Arafat may be weighing the imminent closure of the current negotiating "window" — and the expanded opportunity created by Barak's desperation — against the wisdom of making a deal with a lame-duck Israeli leader underwritten by a lame-duck U.S. president. Although Arafat has not ruled out the possibility of direct talks with Barak in the coming weeks, he may be content to go through the motions and wait to see where the political chips may fall. And, of course, to spend a good part of his time in Washington trying to cozy up to Colin Powell and Condi Rice.