WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (JTA) – For the players in the Middle East peace process, it may seem like the two-minute warning.
A peace treaty may be Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s only chance at being re-elected prime minister in next year’s elections.
The threat of a harder-line Likud leadership in Israel may convince Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that it is urgent to strike a deal. And Bill Clinton, with less than two months remaining in his presidency, may only have one more chance to leave the diplomatic mark he has yearned for in eight years in office.
But can it be done?
Yossi Beilin, Israel’s minister of justice, said last Friday “there is a chance” that a peace treaty could be agreed to in the last 50 days of the Clinton administration.
“We in the Middle East, despite all the differences and all the political costs, we are able to make peace,” Beilin said in a lecture to Johns Hopkins University’s Washington-based international studies school. “The mainstream in both societies understand that if we want to live, we have to live together.”
But while the parties might be motivated to return to the table, the same problems that have prevented a peace process in the past still linger.
Beilin, who met with the U.S. national security adviser, Sandy Berger, last Friday, said the Israelis and Palestinians solved the issue of territories during the Camp David summit this summer, and were very close to an agreement on security and the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
That leaves Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the two hot-button issues that stalled the summit’s attempts at a new peace treaty.
The catalysts for a new round of talks are Barak’s call last week for early elections and the consensus opinion that a new peace agreement may be his only chance at retaining power.
Barak reiterated last week that he would like to reach a partial accord with the Palestinians that would encompass border issues, security and the future of the settlements, but postpone a final decision on the status of Jerusalem.
“Barak is walking a tightrope between believing a deal could be good for the country and help him politically and not tempting Yasser Arafat to jack up the price and make a deal counter-productive,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Palestinian officials have said that they are not interested in an interim solution.
“We will not be part of Israel’s election campaign,” Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said Nov. 29 to the media. “The issues he spoke about – the 10 percent of the land and so forth – these issues were supposed to be implemented last November. Once there is an agreement, there must be a comprehensive one. There is nothing new in what he said.”
Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Barak might have a difficult time convincing Palestinians that his country will support any new concessions he makes, but new concessions are essential to any new agreement.
“I think the Oslo framework has taken us as close to the mountain as we are going to get,” Alterman said. “I think we will have to be more creative.”
But any new Israeli concessions will only show Barak’s desperation and political weakness, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Report and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.
“There is a collapse of will among the Israeli leadership, and the Palestinians believe they can do a whole lot better through force,” Pipes said. “Whatever Barak puts on the table will be seen as the minimum.”
If no deal is struck and the Likud Party returns to power in Israel, chances may dwindle that negotiations can pick up where they left off at Camp David.
“Arafat believes that he can be the kingmaker in Israel, but there is a real danger that he overplays his hand, and this could blow up in Barak’s or Arafat’s face,” Makovsky said.
But although Labor and Likud employ different language when discussing concessions, Pipes said the parties’ fundamental stances are not that divergent. Additionally, any deal signed by a Likud prime minister almost automatically has the support of Labor and, therefore, a majority of people in Israel.
Arafat also might consider waiting for a new resident in the White House – one who is less involved and whom Palestinians perceive as less pro-Israel.
“Too many Arabs have whispered into Arafat’s ear that he will get a better deal if he only waits for George W. Bush,” Makovksy said.
Barak would be wise to put off elections for as long as possible, giving him time after the United States settles its presidential battle to restart the peace process, Makovsky said.
But waiting would leave Barak without Clinton, one of his key allies, and would leave that ally out of the peace process he has helped shape for eight years.
Although his term in the White House is almost over, Clinton does not have the problems that most lame-duck leaders would face. Because of the confusion over who is the next president, Clinton’s status has in fact heightened, and he has as much weight in the United States as he did before Election Day.
Two months from now, the next president, whether Bush or Vice President Al Gore, may still be required to intervene in the Middle East, but is unlikely to have the same passion for the region.
“I think American presidents are drawn to the Middle East either by opportunity or necessity,” Makovsky said. “I don’t think after what Clinton has gone through another president is going to say, ‘Let’s see how I can succeed where he failed.’ ” In a phone conversation with Barak last week, Clinton acknowledged the “narrowing window of what he can do while still in office,” National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said, but both leaders said they still see a role for Clinton.
Beilin seemed confident that the two sides can return to the negotiating table before Clinton’s term ends. He said that although both Palestinians and Israelis may believe they deserve more concessions, they must work together to find a middle ground that makes the region livable.
“Dreams are nice and fights are sometimes very heroic,” he said. “But the bottom line is death and guns.”
For the current leaders even to discuss getting back together to hash out an agreement, the violence in the region must be toned down, if not halted entirely, experts said.
The hope of a lasting accord is remote. Chances are better, analysts said, for a continuation of the interim status agreed to at Oslo.
And although expectations are being downplayed, American Jews are holding out hope for some agreement in the short-term.
“When a room is very dark, even a small candle creates a lot of light,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace group. “It may be a long shot, but it’s the best chance we may see for a long time for a far-reaching deal.”