The announcement that the Palestinians will delay their declaration of statehood, expected yesterday evening, may give the Middle East peace process under President Clinton a final opportunity for success.
But it will be a slim opportunity. A consensus is emerging in Washington and in the region that the time may not yet be right for the Israelis and the Palestinians to bury their epic enmities.
On the other hand - which is always a feature of Middle East politics - this air of grim resignation may just be part of the endgame as the two sides gird themselves for the arduous compromise that peace will require.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in particular, is a man well-practiced in the art of brinkmanship. "You never know when a deadline is a deadline until he decides," says Said Aburrish, a London-based biographer and critic of Mr. Arafat.
Sept. 13 - this Wednesday - is one such deadline. By that day the Israelis and the Palestinians were to have reached a final peace agreement, but Arafat has been saying for months that he would declare a state on his own even in the absence of an Israeli deal.
But the Israelis and the US made it clear that such an action would harm the peace process and draw sanctions and reprisals. So Arafat and his aides have been fudging a bit on their plans.
Over the weekend, the 129-member Palestinian Central Council met to consider the timing of a declaration of statehood, and at press time all indications were that its delegates would put the event off until at least mid-November.
So the door to peace will stay ajar for at least a few more weeks, but political calendars in Israel and the US are pushing it closed.
The US Congress will adjourn sometime in advance of the Nov. 7 election, meaning that Mr. Clinton will be unable to win passage of the financial package that the US will have to provide to fund a peace deal. The legislative break and the election itself may erode Clinton's authority to bring the two sides together.
In late October Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of a minority government, will have to face his parliament again, which has also been on break. Opposition leaders have vowed to unseat him as soon as they reconvene.
Arafat and his aides are promising weeks of intensive negotiations toward a settlement, but yesterday Barak spokesman David Baker said he couldn't confirm any resumption. "Talks have not been rescheduled," said Mr. Baker. Following Clinton's failure to make any tangible progress in New York, where he met with Arafat and Barak during a recent United Nations conference, expectations are low. "People are realizing there is no deal, no breakthrough," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem.
Mr. Abdul-Hadi says the Israeli leader has not been living up to his commitments, creating a situation where "the mistrust is back." At the same time, Israeli commentators have criticized Barak for not making a strong enough personal connection with Arafat.
The negotiations with the Palestinians are taking place under the framework of a simple concept: land for peace. Indeed, in doing a peace deal with Egypt and in contemplating one with Syria, the Israelis have honored this principle.
But because of a strong religious commitment to some of the lands seized by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the formula can't be fully honored in dealing with the Palestinians. In this case, the deal being contemplated amounts to most of the land for peace, with some arrangements for sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem and especially its overlapping sacred sites.
At the same time, Israel is torn between its identity as a Jewish state - whose advocates demand that the government hold on to some Palestinian lands - and the desire of many citizens to make peace with the Arabs and create a more-or-less secular democracy.
Barak's parliamentary twists and turns are just one sign of this crossroads. Where the prime minister once courted ardently religious political parties, he has since embarked on a package of civil reforms that serve the cause of secular-minded Israelis. His capacity to stay in power is much in doubt.
Arafat said Saturday that the Palestinians already have a state, and in a way he is right. For that he owes his Israeli and US negotiating partners. That is why some of the Palestinian leader's strongest critics say that the peace process will stay on track, even if the Clinton era passes without a final deal.
"It may be frozen, but it will not break down," says Adel Samara, a political economist who was jailed briefly last year after signing a manifesto critical of Arafat. He says "internal agreements" between Arafat and the Israelis will keep the process, such as it is, moving forward.
But these are not "real negotiations," he says, referring to the years of contacts between Israelis, who have the upper hand, and their much weaker Palestinian partners. At best, the outcome for Samara will not be a free and independent Palestinian state, but just "improved self-rule."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society