Seize the moment for a real Mideast peace deal

Posted: Friday, July 21, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Miami Herald:

The surprising fact that the week-old talks continue at Camp David in pursuit of a ``final status'' deal in the Mideast - back from the very brink of collapse late Wednesday - is a credit to the extraordinary commitment to peace of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and to the negotiating skills of President Clinton.

Success remains an elusive dream. But as long as there are talks there is hope that the improbable might be possible. The three leaders clearly realize that this may be their last and best chance to achieve a historic peace agreement. They are the right people - perhaps the only people - with the right ideas at the perfect time.

Mr. Barak is Israel's most decorated and best respected soldier. He is the one man who can persuade the Israeli people to accept a deal that necessarily will entail concessions and risks. Mr. Arafat, too, is the Palestinians' most credible leader and perhaps stands alone in being able to persuade his followers to compromise with Israel in exchange for having the state they have wanted for half a century. Mr. Clinton is America's consummate political negotiator and is driven by the urgency of his waning presidency and a desire to leave an unimpeachable legacy.

But the near-collapse showed that the two protagonists don't share the same vision of the end game. Mr. Barak came to the summit prepared to give up land, relocate Jewish settlers, accept a Palestinian state and compromise on Jerusalem's broader borders, though not its central core. In exchange, he needs security guarantees and a formal declaration that hostilities have ended. Mr. Arafat sought agreement on Palestinian statehood, a return to pre-1967 borders, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands, and control of East Jerusalem. Mr. Clinton's goal was to broker a fair deal and facilitate the transition to a working partnership between the two leaders.

Negotiations stopped with Mr. Barak accusing Mr. Arafat of not making a genuine commitment to peace. Translation: You can't have everything you want - namely central Jerusalem, fully restored borders or a home for every Palestinian refugee; but you will have a state, sovereignty, a part of Jerusalem and peace. Mr. Arafat, in turn, accused Mr. Barak of being unwilling to commit to a ``just and lasting peace.'' Translation: The Palestinians must be made whole in accord with U.N. resolutions and compensated, including a real capital in Jerusalem.

Only insiders know what got Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat back to the negotiating table. But failure would have weighed heavily on each and would have been widely seen as an opportunity squandered. Mr. Clinton soon will be a lame duck and then out of office. The next U.S. president would need months, if not years, to earn a similar level of trust among Mideast leaders to broker a deal.

For Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak, going home empty-handed may have given each a short-term political boost. But history would view them as leaders who, at a golden moment, let peace slip from their grasp. They must carry on.

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