The Next Mideast Deadline

May 17 is the new "deadline" in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The old deadline was May 4, the day on which final-status negotiations were to have been completed under the Oslo peace accord.

Since those negotiations haven't even started, Yasser Arafat last year seized on the idea of using the would-be finale as the day to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state. That dramatic possibility dangled over Mideast diplomacy and politics for a year.

But Mr. Arafat, happily, forwent the statehood gesture and accepted an American proposal to extend the talks' deadline another year. That decision, against the wishes of more fiery elements in his ranks, should serve him and his people well.

Now back to May 17 and another key decision regarding Middle East peace. That's when the Israeli electorate goes to the polls to choose a new prime minister and government. The present PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, could of course be returned to office. He trails in the opinion surveys by only a few points, though that gap is currently widening. But his ace in the hole - a radical statehood move by Arafat to rekindle Israeli nationalist fires and fears - now can't be played. Mr. Netanyahu's backup move, to heat up the emotional Jerusalem issue by shutting down Palestinian offices in the city was blocked by an Israeli court.

Ever the resourceful politician, Netanyahu claims his threat to annex the West Bank kept Arafat from a statehood proclamation. More likely, it was the Palestinian leader's desire not to hand Netanyahu a campaign issue.

A majority of Israeli voters by now should realize that the prime minister's tirades about the dangers of peacemaking and the perils of a Palestinian state portend only more stalemate, frustration, and tension.

If their nod goes to Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, the challenges confronting him will be the same as those Netanyahu has faced - chiefly, how to ensure Israeli security as Palestinian sovereignty expands. He'll also have to deal with looming final-status questions like Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements.

What he must have - which Netanyahu often glaringly lacked - is a clear determination to make the peace process work. That's the key to lasting security.

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