Why Arafat Is Balking at Peace Deal

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An Israeli reacts at the scene of a bomb blast in Tel Aviv

Just hours after the planned summit between the Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak went up in smoke Thursday, the real explosions went off.

Bomb blasts in Tel Aviv and Gaza on Thursday reportedly killed two and injured 16 more — as if anyone needed reminding that talk of peace means talk of compromise. And so it appears that even a U.S. president's best Solomon impression — the set of proposals that Bill Clinton left hanging in the air over the weekend — leaves those factions outside the Arafat umbrella in a very vengeful mood.

No wonder the Palestinian leader is playing hard to get.

Hopes for a summit, which was to be hosted by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and was aimed at getting the two sides down to business, evaporated after the Palestinian leadership sniffed at the Clinton proposals and asked the White House for more details.

What's at stake

The proposals — which are not in written form — reportedly grant the Palestinians sovereignty over Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif (called the Temple Mount by Jews) while the Israelis would have sovereignty over the Western Wall (the only remaining piece of the Second Temple). The proposal also calls for the resettlement of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Palestinian-controlled land rather than in Israel. And so Barak went back to Jerusalem to huddle with his cabinet and security chiefs, and Arafat went off to Cairo by himself.

Barak has already signaled that he was game if Arafat was, and Wednesday declared the proposals acceptable to Israel as a "basis for discussion" with the Palestinians.

And Barak has reason to be pliable — he's desperate.

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 from which both sides can take some finality — is it. At some point, Barak will have to bring a deal home to the Israeli parliament and face down the hawks (Ariel Sharon, for one, who is running against Barak). But until then he's got nothing to lose but his job, and without a deal he expects to lose that anyway.

Appeasing the hardliners

Arafat, of course, unlike Barak or Clinton, doesn't have a changing of the guard to worry about. But politics is politics, and if Arafat doesn't bring home a deal that includes the Haram al-Sharif and tackles the very touchy refugee problem to his own hawks' satisfaction, he'll go down in Palestinian infamy and quite possibly be blown up himself by militants. Or so he says. This is Middle East peace, not some Beltway budget battle, and Arafat is under some very serious pressure to come out on top at the negotiating table.

But Palestinians still want a Palestine, and they want their people to stop dying, which means they want a deal. And Arafat would much rather deal with Barak than Sharon, whose last foray into the peace process at Temple Mount kicked off the current round of bloodshed.

Which is what Arafat is doing in Cairo — trying to get the Arab world to lean on Israel (and the U.S.) and help him cut a better deal.

A fuss is being duly kicked up. Administration officials told the New York Times on Wednesday that Clinton got favorable responses to the proposals from Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia — much warmer responses, anyway, than Clinton got from the moderate trio after Camp David in July. But with the summit off and Arafat making the rounds, the Arab tone turned a bit nastier.

The refugee problem

In Egypt's leading newspaper, chief editor and Mubarak confidant Samir Ragab wrote that Arabs "unanimously rejected" the nature of the U.S. proposals. "This offer does not meet Arab and Palestinian interests and there is nothing which will force us to accept it." In Lebanon, a Foreign Ministry official renewed his country's objections to "any agreement between Palestinians and Israelis that may be related to the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon without Lebanon being party to the agreement." Of course that means Syria has to come too — and Thursday the mouthpiece Syria Times nixed the proposals too. The plan "delivers (to Israel) its longtime goal of annexing portions of Palestinian lands and depriving refugees of their right to return to their homes and villages."

And so Arafat is looking to regional peace-seeker Mubarak to help him find a negotiating posture that passes for dovish at the negotiating table and hawkish back at home, while Barak and Clinton wait.

They are not advised to hold their breath.