As Israeli-Palestinian negotiators attempt to restore the peace process, events again demonstrate the disparity in bargaining power between the two sides.
Israel, with its military power, could retake Palestinian towns and destroy the peace process. The past and present governments have not exercised that power, but they have demonstrated the capacity, without negotiations, to take Arab land for settlements and to reduce the Arab presence in Jerusalem.
Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians have the limited leverage of the weak. Neighboring Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt, fearful of internal reactions or of losing external aid, are of little help. In the absence of progress to solutions to current problems, Mr. Arafat cannot avoid responding to a population cut off from employment, restricted in movement, and denied access to holy places.
Many older Palestinians and merchants may dread any recurrence of the intifadah, but thousands of unemployed and underemployed youths are willing to vent their frustrations. And waiting on the fringe of Palestinian society are those who believe only terrorist acts will achieve Arab objectives. Yet, when Arafat calls for a Palestinian protest at the reopening of the tunnel in Jerusalem, demonstrations get beyond his control.
Arafat is in a Catch-22. Israelis place on him the responsibility to stop violence, while at the same time refusing concessions that might strengthen his political standing. If goaded Palestinian police fire on Israeli troops, Arafat is held responsible. If he claims he's not in full control, he gives Israeli hard-liners a reason to refuse to negotiate.
Israel does have security fears - as do the Palestinians. But the recent violence came not as a result of the peace process but because of its delay and what were seen as unnecessary Israeli provocations. If Likud continues to see total security in an ongoing subjugation of the Palestinian population, the prospects for real security may be dim.
The US has, in the past, provided a balance in this unbalanced equation through pressing for concessions by both sides, as President Carter did at Camp David. But this is not the season in Washington for pressure on Israel. Even if it were, US leverage is limited, especially when Israel feels its security is threatened. The one area of possible leverage - aid to Israel - is off limits in a Congress strongly committed to such assistance.
US public opinion and US Jewish opinion may be divided over how Israel should proceed, but little evidence of such division was apparent during last week's summit. Prime Minister Netanyahu dominated the airwaves. Arafat, having little to show for his days in Washington, remained silent and offstage. The Israeli leader, ignoring the provocative midnight opening of the Jerusalem tunnel and the past unwillingness of his government to implement the Oslo accords, stressed reasonableness and desire for negotiations. His warm handshake with Arafat was an added gesture in that direction.
Ultimately, the balance of power will be decided not in Washington but in the region. If Arafat has elements in his favor, they may lie in the desire of much of the Israeli public for the peace process to succeed and in the reported diminished willingness of Israelis to do military service in hostile Arab territories.
At the summit, success for Mr. Netanyahu lay in having no results seen as concessions to violence. A no-result summit was also good for Bill Clinton, avoiding any impression of politically unpopular pressure on Israel. Only Arafat needed results, and he gained none. Given the tension in the area, the no-result policy cannot continue for long. In the absence of genuine results, Netanyahu and Clinton, as well as Arafat, may be the losers.
* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.