Chilly wind blows against Arafat

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

But Clinton is not the only person blaming the Palestinian leader.

Over the weekend, the editor of a Saudi Arabian-owned newspaper in London also criticized Arafat for the outcome of Camp David. "He wants to be the guest of the American president and have dinner every evening with the prime minister of Israel, but he did not want to offer anything," wrote Abderrahman al-Rashed in Asharq al-Awsat. "He is not ready for a political solution...."

In this part of the world, where newspaper columns are often thought to provide glimmers of insight into the thinking of tight-lipped leaders, Mr. Rashed's comments stand out from Arab criticism of the pressure put on Arafat and support for his rejection of US proposals at Camp David.

Yesterday, the Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh said in an editorial that Clinton "wants to punish the Palestinians by moving his country's embassy to Jerusalem and to deprive them [of] aid if they declare a state." Arafat has said he will unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood on Sept. 13, a move that Clinton has cautioned against in the absence of an agreement with Israel.

In recent days Arafat has been touring world capitals to explain his version of what happened at Camp David, saying before his departure from Gaza that Israelis have been telling "big lies" about Palestinian positions. He did not have to explain himself to his own people, who greeted him with cheers and jubilation when he returned from the US last week.

He may be seeking support, particularly from Arab leaders, for difficult decisions ahead that will make him less popular at home.

Despite Clinton's criticism - which Israeli analysts attribute in part to the president's desire to help Hillary Rodham Clinton's standing with Jewish voters in New York - the Palestinian leader is in no position to "fight the US," says Meir Litvak, an expert on Palestinian politics at Tel Aviv University.

The Middle East peace process, fractious and halting though it is, has gained a momentum of its own. Yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met to continue the push for an agreement, and Clinton has indicated he would be willing to host another summit.

But Mr. Barghouti, leader of the Fatah organization founded by Arafat, notes that "there is real frustration in the Palestinian street now."

Many of Arafat's supporters cannot understand why more concessions are necessary.

By their reckoning, Arafat's recognition of the state of Israel in 1993 signed away their right to claim 78 percent of land they consider their own.

Left with the remaining 22 percent, they say they are being asked to concede even more territory and their rights to Jerusalem. A fair solution, they say, is simple.

"If you take something of mine and there is a fight, then for peace you must give back what you took," says an American businessman of Palestinian origin who declined to give his name.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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