From frying pan, into Mideast fire

Embattled by impeachment proceedings, Clinton finds the Israeli-Palestinian peace process no easier.

The hard political positioning that met President Clinton's arrival in Israel has set the tone for what promises to be one of his most difficult trips abroad in his six years as US president. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began negotiations on the runway at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night, delivering a political indictment of the Palestinians as violators of the seven-week-old Wye River accord.

If the president succeeds in compelling Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to uphold the accord, he could go home tomorrow night with a feather in his cap that would boost his image as a competent statesman - and help wave away some of the smoke rising from the impeachment proceedings.

But if he leaves the region with as much hostility in the air as there was when he arrived, it will be difficult to fall back on the laurels of the Mideast peace process in which his administration has invested so much time and money.

His fourth presidential trip to Israel and an unprecedented visit to autonomous Palestinian territory comes at a crucial point in the peace process. Palestinian streets have been raging with clashes against Israeli soldiers, primarily because of anger over Israel's refusal to release as many Palestinians from prison as expected. Only 100 of the 250 prisoners Israel released in the aftermath of the Wye accord were jailed for committing acts of terrorism or nationalistic crimes - the remainder were convicted of regular crimes - and Palestinian leaders say that the prisoner release should have included only "security prisoners," not common car thieves.

Citing the unrest, Netanyahu has declared that he will not withdraw Israeli troops from another portion of the West Bank on Friday, as he is required to do in accordance with Wye's structured 12-week timetable.

For domestic consumption

Clinton's ultimate challenge during his three-day visit will be to call Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat on their act of telling half-truths for domestic consumption. Both leaders have twisted the reality of what they agreed to under the shady trees of Wye Plantation.

Netanyahu says that unless the Palestine National Council, which Clinton is due to address today, takes a vote to change its founding charter calling for Israel's destruction, Israel will still consider the Palestinians to be in violation of the Oslo and Wye accords. Netanyahu, however, signed an accord that explicitly said Palestinians would "reaffirm" their support for annulling parts of their founding charter, but never mentioned a vote.

And the Palestinian Authority has done little so far to douse the ire of those protesting the prisoner situation. Yet Arafat agreed to a phased release of 750 prisoners - which the 1993 Oslo accords stipulated would include criminal as well as security detainees.

Complicating the matter, domestic public opinion is not always so malleable as leaders would like. Too many Palestinians are already convinced, with or without a nod from Arafat, that Israel has violated the agreement by not releasing more prisoners. And, even if Palestinians make a symbolic gesture of a vote tomorrow - and Netanyahu declares himself satisfied - his critics on the far right will remain unconvinced that Palestinians have legally changed the charter.

In just over a week, Netanyahu is to face the possibility that the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, will bring down his coalition, further forcing him to choose between confrontation with the Americans and Palestinians now - or possible political devastation later.

Bringing both sides to task

Clinton, speaking on Sunday after meeting with Netanyahu, indicated he would try to bring both sides to task and implore them to stick to the agreement.

"Have the Palestinians fulfilled all their commitments? They certainly could be doing better to prevent violent demonstrations in the street," Clinton said. "I know that each step forward can be excruciatingly difficult. Each side has serious political restraints ... but in the end, there has been a fundamental decision made to do this."

What Clinton had hoped for when he agreed to make this trip was a chance to nurture the peace he helped broker - and an opportunity to float American ideas on the thorny "final status" negotiations that have yet to begin. Now, however, the patron of peace has been left with a visit that may be focused on little more than patching holes abroad and dodging questions from home.

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