Clinton's Last Mideast Shot?

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ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP

Sovereignty over Temple Mount is once again a main point of contention

The ticking clock of American politics — now at three weeks and counting — has driven President Bill Clinton to lay one last Middle East peace plan on the table in front of Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. No more negotiations, no more summits, no more photo-ops. A solution. Take it or leave it.

The terms are sketchy — the deal was strictly oral, and will simply disappear into thin air if either side rejects it — but whenever you hear the phrases "Palestinian state covering 95 percent of the West Bank" and "Israel to cede sovereignty over the Temple Mount," you know both sides will have plenty to complain about.

Barak's Gamble

Barak, at least, sounds desperate enough to take a chance. "The natural tendency is of course to want to make many changes in the proposals," he told Israeli television Monday, before laying his card on the table. "I believe if Yasir Arafat accepts things as they were presented by President Clinton, we are also compelled to accept them."

For the Israeli prime minister, these are not natural times. Barak is campaigning for an early election on Feb. 6 with fast-fading support in the polls. He needs a platform, something to take to the voters besides more negotiations and more violence, and peace — a peace solution — is it. Without it, Barak's own democratic clock may run out.

But you don't fight in the desert for 50 years if all it takes to make a deal is a U.S. president in a hurry. And Temple Mount, the sticking point at Camp David in July, looks like the contested high ground this time around too.

Who gets the high ground?

In one proposal leaked by the White House in the New York Times on Tuesday, Palestinians would get sovereignty over the holy outcropping. Muslims believe Haram al Sharif, as the site is known in Islam, is where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Palestinians would be forbidden to conduct archaeological digs there and would acknowledge the "Jewish connection" to the site. But the "connection" is that Temple Mount is believed by Jews to be the site of Solomon's temple, the center of the original Jewish universe. And conservatives in the Israeli parliament are loath to give it up, even if Barak is game.

A Solomonic solution?

In fact, any deal Barak brings home with a Palestine "entity" in it may be spiked; Arafat, meanwhile, says if he comes back without Haram al Sharif, militant Muslims will spike him. Clinton knows even two signatures won't mean a thing until a lengthy separation and stabilization process is begun and ended (that'd be George W. Bush's job).

Clinton wants to hear back from both men by week's end, and his last best chance for a legacy of success in the Mideast may hinge on whether he can convince Arafat and Barak that this is their last best chance too.

Unless he could track down that Solomon guy…