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A Half-Bid For Peace In Mideast

Pressure on Clinton, Netanyahu, and Arafat to finish Oslo pact led to a Sept. 28 summit.

As photo opportunities go, it was a winner: long-estranged Israeli and Palestinian leaders flanking the American president in the kind of arrangement that seems to promise a historic handshake.

But a surprise White House summit Sept. 28 may be more a breakthrough of convenience than a real shift toward Mideast reconciliation.

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Deadlines for various stages of the peace process, deadlocked for 19 months, have been pushed back repeatedly since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

Israel has resisted scheduled troop withdrawals from West Bank land - including the 13 percent now getting so much attention - on the grounds that the Palestinians have not done enough to rein in Islamic extremists bent on destroying the Jewish state.

But one deadline now looms especially large: In May, the five-year period meant to have paved the way for a final settlement on the control of land and on Palestinian autonomy is up. For Palestinians, that means the time for statehood is at hand.

That deadline, and a confluence of political pressures on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Clinton, may push the process forward, though fundamental differences remain.

Mr. Netanyahu faces the prospect of the Israeli parliament calling early elections in the next six months. His political survival may be at risk if he's seen to have been a do-nothing premier who drove the peace process out of business.

Mr. Clinton's presidency continues to be battered by the Lewinsky scandal and possible impeachment hearings. He may be seeking a foreign policy success as a way to boost his credibility.

American officials have been pushing for movement on Israeli-Palestinian talks for most of 1997 and 1998, with little success. Why should now be any different?

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For the first time in months, it happened that both Netanyahu and Arafat may have seen something to be gained from real negotiating.

A back-channel deal?

Analysts and officials on both sides say Netanyahu agreed to meet with Arafat regarding the long-overdue transfer of land to the Palestinian Authority if Arafat would refrain from announcing at the UN General Assembly that he would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state next May.

As a result, Arafat toned down his speech, asking only for the world to "stand by our people" because "they await the establishment of their independent state."

At home, that allows Netanyahu to portray his deal as a symbol of his ability to use the withdrawal as leverage against Arafat's ability to rally international public opinion. At the same time, it will seem to Palestinians that Arafat's ultimatum was also the winner, pushing Netanyahu out of stall mode.

"I think that the threat to declare statehood and its postponement were a large part of the horse trading that was involved," says Gabriel Ben-Dor, a political scientist at Israel's Haifa University and expert on the Oslo accords.

"At the moment, it seems convenient for everyone. Netanyahu has not been able to deliver on most of his promises so far, because Israelis asked for peace with security, not a lack of peacemaking. Arafat also needs a success to get going.

"Moreover, this is a US president who needs a big success, not just because of his domestic problems, but also the worldwide financial crisis," he says. "It's good for photo opportunities, but I don't know if we're looking at a real breakthrough."

By his calculations, this meeting serves as proof that Clinton as a world leader has not been as deeply damaged by the Starr report as many Americans feared he would be. Professor Ben-Dor compares him to the late President Richard Nixon - humiliated at home by Watergate but still viewed as a first-class statesman abroad. "I see history repeating itself," he says.

Seeking support in Israel

As for his own history, Netanyahu does not want to go down as the man who lost peace. Though he can't say it outright, those who know him say he'd rather go down as the man who made Palestine safe for Israel. To do that, he can't postpone a withdrawal forever. But every time he moves an inch toward redeployment, right-wing hard-liners threaten to topple him.

That's where former Gen. Ariel Sharon comes in. Mr. Sharon, Netanyahu's sometime mentor and sometime opponent, has the power to rally ultranationalist settlers and their powerful representative - the National Religious Party. So, in order to lure Sharon on board with a redeployment plan, Netanyahu will most likely offer him the job of foreign minister.

Sharon may not be able to convince the more extremist segments of the settlement movement to accept a redeployment plan, but he's the only right-wing figure who could lead it into the mainstream. Without his backing, Israeli rejectionists will be rudderless.

A senior Israeli government official said that while the post had not officially been offered to Sharon, the "speculation was based on fact." The official added: "It's not a done deal, but it's also not speculation out of the blue."

Pressure on Arafat, too

Meanwhile, Palestinian pressure on Arafat to declare a state next May is mounting, in large part due to expectations he has built up along the way in an attempt to restore hope. While Arafat was speaking at the UN Sept. 28, many Palestinians said there was no question that he should declare a state next May.

"When Israel announced their state, how land much did they have?" says Mahmoud Radwan, a resident of the Jalazoun Refugee Camp outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah. "Not much more than we do now, but the whole world supported it."

The land that Israel had in 1948, however, was at least contiguous. If Arafat declared a state now, he would have sovereignty over six West Bank cities, part of a seventh, and most of the Gaza Strip. What would happen to the rest?

"Either they give us our rights," says Mr. Radwan, "or I'm sorry to say, but we'll have to take it by power, by blood, and by fighting."

Arafat likely considers that a much less attractive option that some in this crowded camp of 7,000 would think. With the military balance strongly in Israel's favor, Arafat knows that he stands to lose much were his declaration to be read by Israel as a declaration of war.

There may be a much easier route: Back to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and special US peace envoy Dennis Ross are planning a trip here next week to lay down a blueprint for another summit in October. One possibility is a Camp David-style meeting - possibly at the very camp where Israeli and Egyptian leaders worked out their differences 20 years ago.

But that would require conditions to be as convenient next month as they are now, and even Ms. Albright is reluctant to give a sunny forecast just yet.

"I think the term breakthrough gets overused," she said at a press conference Sept. 28 after meeting with both leaders. "[But] I think this time what we really found is that they both sense the need of coming to a conclusion ... [and] we are going to spend what we believe is a good amount of time in order to get it done."

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