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Chilly wind blows against Arafat

Some Palestinians doubt US fitness to mediate in Mideast peace talks, others push Arafat to offer more.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2000



JERUSALEM

It was bad enough that last week's Camp David peace talks ended without an agreement. For the Palestinians, the after-spin has been just as grim, with President Clinton, Israeli officials, and even an influential Arab newspaper saying Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was unwilling to give ground for peace.

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Mr. Clinton, in an interview broadcast Friday on Israeli television, also said he would consider moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that would partially recognize Israel's insistence that this divided and disputed city is its "eternal" capital.

"We were shocked by this interview because we had started to believe that President Clinton understood our suffering," says Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader in the West Bank.

Now Mr. Barghouti and other commentators in the Arab world are again questioning the US leader's capacity to act as an impartial mediator in this most intractable of conflicts.

"I don't think it's fair to accuse the Palestinians and criticize Mr. Arafat - it means the American administration is not a fair mediator and the mediator has to be fair."

When one party is flexible and the other is intransigent, counters Israeli analyst Barry Rubin, deputy director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, "The mediator has to say, 'You've got to do something too."

Apart from frustration over Camp David, Clinton's comments also reflect his desire to shore up Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is taking heat from Israelis opposed to making concessions to the Palestinians. This week he faces no-confidence votes and a motion for new elections in Israel's parliament.

Clinton's support may help, but it also hurts. To have the US president praising his willingness to make a deal with the Palestinians only further incenses conservative Israelis who fear that Barak has already offered too much.

In light of close US-Israeli ties - this country is the No. 1 recipient of United States military and development assistance - Palestinians have never believed that America is entirely an honest broker in their dispute with Israel. But in recent years, Clinton has courted Palestinian trust, repeatedly inviting Arafat to the White House and in 1998 paying a visit to Gaza.

The negotiations at Camp David, where Clinton says that the Israeli leader was willing to make more concessions than his Palestinian counterpart, seem to have taxed presidential patience.

The two sides reportedly made progress on difficult issues - such as the borders of a Palestinian state, what to do with Israeli settlers who have established communities within Palestinian territories, and how to handle Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 - but they remained far apart on Jerusalem.

The city contains sites holy to three religions - in some places one on top of the other - and both sides want the city as their capital. Although the mere discussion of Jerusalem is considered a breakthrough, a solution eluded the Camp David negotiators.