- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

TEL AVIV Israels former foreign minister, who led peace talks with the Palestinians during much of last year, says President Clinton could have coaxed the two sides into a final peace accord had he put more pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to compromise.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of the countrys leading doves, who spent more hours negotiating with Mr. Arafat than almost any other Israeli official, said he had come to view the Palestinian leader as a "megalomaniac with an inferiority complex."
His harsh assessment of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Ben-Amis generally pessimistic forecast for the region echoed the broad disillusionment that has gripped members of the Israeli left since fighting erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last September.
"The Clinton administration was too soft on Arafat," Mr. Ben-Ami said in an interview in his 13th-floor office in Tel Aviv. "The president could have produced a deal with a little more arm-twisting."
Weeks before leaving office, Mr. Clinton presented the two sides with his own blueprint for a final peace accord that would have given Palestinians a state of their own on 93 percent to 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel, under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, accepted the U.S. proposal while Palestinians objected to most of its points. In a last stab at an accord before Israeli elections, the two sides met at the Egyptian resort town of Taba in January.
Mr. Ben-Ami, who led the Israeli team, said he realized soon after arriving in Taba that no deal would be reached, in part because Palestinians insist that millions of refugees have the right to return to their homes inside Israel.
But he now concludes that the problem was broader — that Mr. Arafat, after fighting Israel for decades as a guerrilla leader, could not make the transition to political statesman.
"My perspective is that Arafat, based on what I saw and what I know … is incapable of closing a final deal with Israel," said Mr. Ben-Ami, now a rank-and-file member of parliament from Israels Labor Party.
Dennis Ross, Washingtons longtime Middle East envoy, told the New York Times in an interview last month that he drew similar conclusions about Mr. Arafat.
But Mr. Ben-Ami went further. He said in all his discussions with Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader never articulated a clear position on anything, preferring "evasive slogans." He said Mr. Arafat so misunderstood Israeli public opinion that he sometimes embarrassed himself in meetings with negotiators.
Mr. Ben-Ami described telling Mr. Arafat at a meeting in December that no Israeli government would ever accept the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. In response, Mr. Arafat produced an Israeli news article from his breast pocket that said only half the immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the past 10 years were Jews. If Israel could accept non-Jewish Russians, why couldnt it accept non-Jewish Palestinians?


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