Crunch Time in the Mideast

The Clinton administration is gearing up for one last push toward Middle East peace. The president has said a Palestinian-Israeli deal is "within view." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has embarked on shuttle diplomacy to bring such a deal within grasp.

But optimism is an elusive commodity in this region. The two sides at the heart of the conflict must at long last come to grips with fundamental issues: Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, the fate of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The outlines of compromises on these highly charged issues are clear, and have doubtless been discussed at length by Israelis and Palestinians meeting in so-called back-channel negotiating sessions. Their work now moves out of the shadows, with talks to resume next week in Washington.

The prospective compromises?

Palestinians will be ceded a village on the border of Jerusalem, Abu Dis, that could become their capital - virtually in the city, if not quite. They could also get a symbolic return of refugees, under the guise of family reunification. And the Israelis will retain control over the 10 percent or so of West Bank land that embraces the overwhelming majority of settlers.

Sounds straightforward, though it's anything but. The politics of these compromises are wrenching on both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is already facing rolling no-confidence votes in the Knesset. His ruling coalition is teetering. Somehow he has to prepare his public for the inevitable dimensions of any credible deal with the Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat's task is no easier. His die-hards won't want to give Israel any part of the West Bank. They want full return for refugees. But they won't get that, any more than Israel can expect to hold on to 40 percent or more of the territory it has occupied for decades.

Both leaders will have to muster all their reserves of political courage and negotiating flexibility in order to see this deal through. It won't be enough for Mr. Arafat to keep falling back on his threat of a unilateral declaration of statehood this September. Nor will it be enough for Mr. Barak to hedge peace initiatives in order to appease his right-wingers.

And it won't be enough for President Clinton to be a cheerleader from the sidelines. The United States will have to be a tough-minded, even-handed party to the negotiations - not an easy challenge in an election year, when the impulse to go easy on Israel will be strong.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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