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End the Mideast Stall

Speculation abounds that the Middle East peace process has been hostage to the US presidential election, but that's doubtful. The biggest obstacles to implementing an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron - the next key step in the process - are more indigenous to the region.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was thought by some Israelis to be awaiting a Clinton victory before pushing for greater American pressure on Israel. But the probability of such pressure coming from Washington is not great. More likely, Mr. Arafat has dug in his heels against any further security concessions regarding Hebron because of misgivings concerning the intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Those misgivings deepened this week when plans of Israeli Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon to nearly double the Jewish population of the West Bank were made public.

For all his recent handshakes with Arafat, and his protestations of adherence to the Oslo peace plan, Mr. Netanyahu is on record rejecting the Palestinians' central hope for this process: a state of their own. Why push forward, retuning an already signed Hebron agreement, if your negotiating counterpart appears determined to rule out your goal?

But this is a delicate calculation. If Netanyahu actually takes crucial steps along the Oslo trail, like implementing the Hebron deal, it may become more difficult - and less politically wise - for him to adhere to the hard line that pleases his most extreme constituents, such as radical West Bank settlers. Reengagement with the Palestinians could shift Netanyahu's base of support among Israelis and thus subtly influence his political calculus.

For his part, Arafat has to decide whether a few added concessions on security could pay off. If the Israeli government still balks, the world could have little doubt where resistance really lies. If, on the other hand, Netanyahu moves ahead and turns the promised 80 percent of Hebron over to Palestinian control despite screams from his right wing, the way could open for the next steps, such as further planned Israeli withdrawals and such questions as a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza.

The political risks on both sides are great. But they're not as great as continued nonmovement and a possible renewed cycle of violence.

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