Commentary: Arafat May Have Blown His Best Chance

The 15 days of talks between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David will undoubtedly be branded a failure because they did not reach an agreement. But, judging from news leaks, much was accomplished in the negotiations, which broke down on July 26. For the first time, top leaders on both sides bargained over once-taboo issues such as the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the return of Palestinian refugees. If talks resume in the next few weeks, Camp David could well prove to have been a key step.

The elements of a deal are on the table if the two sides have the will to push one through. It would involve shared authority over portions of Jerusalem; the right of some refugees to return; and tradeoffs of land claimed by both sides.

Trouble is, one side seems to have more will than the other. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak may well be more serious about reaching an agreement than is his Palestinian counterpart, Yassir Arafat. The Palestinian National Authority President was reluctant to go to Camp David and seems to have been stingy on making concessions.

NO BETTER DEAL. If that's the case, then the Arab world may have a problem squaring its professed desire for peace with the hard reality of peacemaking. It could well be that not only the Palestinians but the Syrians, whose own talks with Israel broke down earlier this year, have missed the best opportunity in years to reach a deal with the Israelis. Barak is the most forthcoming Israeli leader the Arabs have ever encountered. Yet he could be on his way out. His coalition collapsed before he left Camp David, and his political survival is in doubt.

If Barak hangs on to power, though, he will try to start talks again. And that will present Arafat and Syria's new leader, Bashar al-Assad, with a scary choice between political expediency and statesmanship. The authority of both the Palestinian and the Syrian leaderships rests on their resistance to Israeli expansion and their efforts to free occupied Arab lands. That history makes it risky for either group to cut a deal with the Israelis. Indeed, maintaining a hostile stance toward Israel is the easier route for both. Instead of being criticized for his timidity at Camp David, Arafat is actually being applauded at home.

Still, both Arafat and Assad would be well-advised to seriously consider coming to terms with Barak. Like his role model, the late Yitzhak Rabin, the former commando and chief-of-staff has the credibility on security matters to push the envelope on negotiations with the Arabs. And President Bill Clinton seems almost desperate to redeem his presidency by wrapping up peace between Arabs and Israelis once and for all. "The Palestinians are never going to get a better deal from the Israelis," says a senior diplomat in London.

Playing the five-decades-old game of confronting Israel is not without risks for Arab leaders. Through satellite dishes, the Internet, and plain word of mouth, Arabs are increasingly aware that their own leaders' mismanagement is contributing to their lagging behind the global economy. Palestinian per capita income is only $1,400--far below the $17,500 figure for Israelis--and is actually $400 less than it was in 1993, when the two sides struck the Oslo accord that led to Palestinian local rule. Syrian per capita income is less than $1,000.

Discontent is bubbling to the surface. In Damascus, it forced the government to promise economic reforms and launch an anti-corruption campaign that led to a former Prime Minister committing suicide this spring. There is plenty of grumbling in the Palestinian areas as well. Some Arabs in Jerusalem say that Israeli rule, despite its injustices for Arabs is still preferable to Arafat's repressive and corrupt authority.

Of course, peace deals won't provide quick fixes for economies suffering from years, if not decades, of mismanagement. But an end to hostilities would encourage investment and remove some of the excuses for misrule. The alternative is a no win situation for Arabs and Israelis alike.

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