Thursday, June 15, 2000

With the death of Syrian leader Hafez Assad, the Middle East peace spotlight has been cast on the Palestinian-Israeli track. That is pretty much all that is left of the process for now after the demise of the Syrian track which was leading to nowhere anyway. So, we are back to the old standby of leaning on Israel to make concession to the Palestinians.

Thus far, the Clinton administration has pressured Israel to make peace work with all of its Arab neighbors. This came with a list of not-so-subtle requests: Withdraw from Lebanon, from the Golan Heights, from the West Bank; free Palestinian prisoners; give up Jerusalem as an Israeli capital. But when President Clinton meets with Yasser Arafat here today, it is the Palestinian leader, not the Israelis, who should be asked to define exactly what he means by peace. It has become clear that for the Palestinians, peace means the consumption of Israel not in part, but the whole. The administration has supported this faulty thinking, but must now face the reality that it cannot force a photogenic, Nobel peace-prize winning peace deal.

The best one can hope for from this week’s meetings is that Mr. Arafat will return to the Palestinian Authority with a message of peace to a people who in the wake of what many saw as a Hezbollah “victory” in rushing the Israelis out of Lebanon see arms rather than negotiations as a solution to the conflict.

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak must strengthen an unraveling coalition at home to gain respect of both the Palestinians and the administration. Last week in a preliminary vote, the prime minister was challenged by three parties within his coalition as well as the opposition to call for early elections. On Tuesday, the ultra-orthodox Shas party said once again that they had decided to quit the coalition and that was “final.” They said they just might reconsider if Mr. Barak gives them funding for their bankrupt schools by Sunday though.

Mr. Barak should not be threatened by brinkmanship strategies. The Shas has done it before, and will likely do it again. There are also several other parties ready to jump in Shas’s place should it really decide to make the leap. The people of Israel do not appear ready to give up on Mr. Barak’s authority in the peace process either. Mr. Barak received 44 percent support and his opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon 35 percent in a poll released this month in Tel Aviv’s daily Maariv paper. The survey done on May 31 just after the withdrawal from Lebanon asked voters who they would choose should an election be held today.

In the meantime, both Palestinian and Israeli delegations can use this time in Washington to gain perspective on the peace process and prepare for the future. Palestinians must realize that the Israelis cannot make peace in a vacuum, and the Israelis must not overreact to their divided coalition’s latest squabble. If a peace deal happens, it will be negotiated behind closed doors. The peace negotiators’ public silence may be the best news coming out of Washington this week.

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