Despite Talk of 'Progress,' Mideast Deal Looks Doomed

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leaves the White House after the talks

If progress in President Clinton’s last-ditch Mideast peace effor is measured in statements of commitment to peace, then headway is indeed being made. But as the Palestinian leader prepared to leave Washington Wednesday after a day of intense talks at the White House, there’s little reason to believe that Israelis and Palestinians are any closer to actually concluding the final peace deal to which Clinton has dedicated the final three weeks of his presidency.

Like his Israeli counterpart, Chairman Arafat has accepted the president’s proposed deal — with reservations. The plan, which has been kept vague and under wraps, reportedly calls for Israel to withdraw from all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank, recognizes Palestinian sovereignty in parts of East Jerusalem and over the Muslim holy sites atop that city’s Temple Mount, and requires Arafat to drop claims for the right of some 4 million Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes inside Israel. Just as Prime Minister Ehud Barak accepted the proposals and then immediately added that he would not recognize Palestinian sovereignty over any part of the Temple Mount, so must Chairman Arafat’s acceptance be measured against the factors weighing overwhelmingly against him making any compromises on Jerusalem or the fate of the refugees. Essentially both men said a muffled yes because neither could afford an outright rejection the American plan, at the same time as neither could afford the domestic political consequences of embracing it. In other words, that qualified "yes" from both sides appears to be little more than simply running out the clock on the Clinton presidency.

The Palestinian leader now heads for Cairo where he'll huddle with Arab heads of state, in a meeting observers expect will underline his refusal to compromise on Jerusalem and the refugees. After all, three months of bloodletting in the West Bank and Gaza have left the moderate Arab regimes on which Washington traditionally relies to cajole Arafat into concessions facing mounting pressure from their own people to take a tougher stance. Nobody in the region is particularly bullish about the prospects of a peace deal concluded with a lame-duck U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister who, according to most estimates, is headed for an ignominious defeat when Israel goes to the polls a month from now.

The wagons are circling

Even before President Clinton's fruitless confab with Arafat, Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared to be circling the wagons in Israel, warning that the Palestinian leader was not serious about concluding a deal and once again urging his army to prevent attacks on Israelis by any means necessary — a directive that has been interpreted in recent months as license to carry out a systematic program of assassinating selected Palestinian militants held responsible by Israel for planning or committing acts of violence. Having failed to secure a peace agreement on which to campaign, Barak's best hope for winning reelection may now be for a dramatic military action that restores Israeli voter confidence in his ability to ensure their security.

Seeking 'clarification'

Arafat, too, may have become a prisoner of his own support base. The purpose of his Washington visit was to "clarify" President Clinton's framework proposals for a final peace agreement — reportedly that Israel agree to withdraw from all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank, including most of East Jerusalem and the Islamic holy sites, and the Palestinians to drop claims for the right of return to Israel of some 4 million Palestinian refugees forbidden by Israeli law from returning to homes they or their ancestors fled in 1948 during Israel's war of independence. Under mounting domestic pressure, Barak had suggested he'd accept the deal with reservations but wouldn't sign over sovereignty over the Muslim sites. That issue alone, as Camp David showed, could be enough to scupper a deal. But after three months of a bitter intifada that has seen the Palestinian street increasingly willing to contradict Arafat, the Palestinian leader may now find himself unable to simply sign away the claims of the refugees, even if that had been his original intention. Right now, the followers of both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak are simply not yet ready to conclude a workable peace, which leaves the Bush administration facing the headache of fashioning a new policy towards the conflict. President-elect Bush said Tuesday that his predecessor was "giving it his best shot…and I certainly hope it works." Indeed, the thankless task of Mideast peacemaking may be one bit of the presidency Bush would happily have left to the Democrats.