Mideast Peace: From Narrow Gap To Disastrous Chasm?

So close, yet so far apart. On Jan. 3, the Palestinian leadership accepted with reservations President Bill Clinton's proposals for negotiating a settlement with Israel. But bridging the last narrow gaps between the two sides will still likely prove fiendishly difficult.

Both Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are politically weak at present. Barak faces an election on Feb. 6 that he is likely to lose to former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who promises to reject the sort of deal Barak is pursuing. Arafat is under pressure from his own constituents, who have been fired up by the recent intifada, not to sign away Palestinian national rights. Both men are going to find it hard to compromise on the remaining issues that separate the two sides. These include the precise shape of a Palestinian state; control over the Muslim and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Clinton envisions the Palestinians gaining a patchwork-like state in the West Bank, parts of Jerusalem, and Gaza in return for largely giving up the right to return to Israel.

If Clinton doesn't have a deal when his time expires on Jan. 20, a new American approach to the Middle East is likely to emerge. Analysts expect George W. Bush to back off on going for a grand-slam Israeli-Palestinian deal. Instead, the thinking goes, Bush will follow in his father's footsteps and try to repair strains with the deep-pocketed Saudis. He'll also want to teach his father's old sparring partner, the increasingly brazen Saddam Hussein, a lesson. On Israel and the Palestinians, the new Administration will just try to make sure "that the violence does not escalate into a larger conflict," says Gerald Steinberg, a conflict resolution expert at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

Maybe less pressure and more time are the right medicine to help the Palestinians and Israelis come to their senses and see that it is in their interests to compromise. That is certainly what Palestinian businesspeople, who risk having their recent investments in their homeland go up in smoke, are hoping. "My own view is that we will come to a resolution here, although it may take longer than we thought," says Sam Bahour, who is managing construction of a $10 million shopping center near Ramallah in the West Bank.

But there are other, nastier scenarios if all hopes of a settlement are abandoned. Barak, the would-be peacemaker, is increasingly talking of war. According to press leaks in Israel, the Prime Minister has told Israeli generals to prepare for the possibility of regional conflict in the event that the peace process breaks down completely.

REOCCUPATION? Of course, in the Middle East such talk has to be taken with a grain of sand. Barak may be trying to pressure Arab regimes such as the Egyptians and the Jordanians to get Arafat to play ball. But on the other hand, the possibility of a wider conflict can't be excluded. The most likely flash point: Hezbollah guerrillas' rocket attacks from Lebanese soil.

Palestinians worry that the Israelis will dismantle the Palestinian Authority, the local government created under the 1993 Oslo accords, and perhaps send Arafat back into exile, figuring that he creates more problems than he solves. Such a move would be accompanied by an increased Israeli military presence in Palestinian areas. And it might well ratchet up the conflict and rile the Arab world. Bush, the reluctant peacekeeper, might find himself under pressure to send troops to separate Israelis and Palestinians.

These are all reasons for all the parties to press for a settlement now. But don't bet too much on it happening.

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