Can Clinton, a lame-duck, pull miracle in Mideast

JERUSALEM — How lame is a lame-duck president?

In their separate meetings with President Clinton at the White House this week and next, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat were about to find out.

The hope on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that a new chapter can be written in America's political science textbooks — a chapter suggesting that the widely believed weakness of an outgoing president is, in fact, a source of strength.

Weakness, of course, is a characteristic that all three leaders currently share.

Clinton is on his way out, and the attention of the world is fixed on his successor. In terms of the Middle East, moreover, Clinton's weakness stems from the ongoing crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has come close to undoing all the effort he put into the peace process during the past seven years.

Barak is also weak — because his minority government is living on borrowed time. The fervently religious Shas Party recently gave his government a one-month "safety net," during which Shas legislators would not support any motions to topple him. Likud and the other opposition parties are pressing Shas officials to reduce that time frame, or at least not to extend it.

Arafat is no less feeble, but for different reasons. His fragmented Palestinian Authority is infinitely weaker, militarily and economically, than Israel. The uprising in the territories is causing widespread suffering to his people while he, as leader, has yet to show a tangible political achievement that makes the suffering all worthwhile.

Topping the agenda of the Washington meetings is the need to end the violence and shore up the still largely unimplemented agreements made last month at the Sharm el-Sheik summit. Those agreements included ending the violence and finding a path back to peace talks.

Beyond this, however, the two sides appear to have very different goals for their talks with Clinton.

Reportedly included on Barak's agenda is a desire to revise, in light of the ongoing violence, some of the security arrangements discussed at the Camp David summit in July — particularly the repeated incidents in which Palestinian gunmen have opened fire on Israeli troops.

Barak, who is scheduled to meet with the president Sunday, is also said to have reconsidered his previous willingness to consider granting the Palestinians control over Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

Arafat, who was slated to be in Washington yesterday, is continuing to press for an "internationalization" of the peace process so that the United States will no longer have the sole role of mediator in the talks.

As part of this drive, Arafat is also urging that a U.N. peacekeeping force be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel adamantly rejects the idea, and Barak this week denied reports that U.S. officials had floated such a proposal with Israel.

For his part, Clinton told a Chicago radio station Monday that Israel's opposition to such a force means "it can't happen."

Offering a similar view, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that the United Nations would need Israel's agreement before it could deploy the peacekeepers.

During an informal closed session Wednesday, the 15-member U.N. Security Council took up Arafat's request for peacekeepers. However, Israeli diplomatic sources said several council members agree with Annan that peacekeepers could not be dispatched without Israel's approval.

It was unclear at the Jewish Bulletin's press time whether the council would reach any decision this week.

Despite the differing positions of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel's acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, remained optimistic that a way could be found back to the negotiating table.

"If Arafat wants to return to the negotiations, and the calm in the territories continues to take hold, it is certainly possibly to renew negotiations," Ben-Ami told Israel Army Radio on Monday.

His comments came as Israeli officials noted a drop in the number of clashes in the territories.

Still, the death toll among Palestinians from these clashes continued to mount daily.

And at the same time, attacks on Israeli targets took on a new dimension this week, when a Palestinian attempted to blow up an Israeli navy ship off the coast of the Gaza Strip in what the navy called a fumbled suicide bombing.

The man blew up his fishing boat late Monday night when Israeli sailors on a patrol boat approached to investigate. The blast killed the man and sank his boat without causing Israeli casualties, navy officials said.

And on Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen fired shots at an Israeli bus bringing children home from school near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip. Bullets hit the bus, but no one was injured.

Wednesday — the eve of Arafat's visit to the White House — Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli woman who worked as a customs agent when they opened fire on a car at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Seven Palestinians were also killed during fighting.

Despite the violence, Barak issued a letter to world leaders in which he made an explicit offer to help create a "viable" Palestinian state. But, Barak added, the state would be created as a result of negotiations, not through violence or a unilateral declaration.

Later Wednesday, Israel brought in tanks after Palestinian police joined with other Arabs in a gun battle with Israeli troops at the Karni Crossing between Israel and Gaza.

Given such continued violence, can the three leaders overcome their individual weaknesses and pull the tortured region back from the abyss?

This week, only diehard optimists were prepared to subscribe to that prospect.

Those optimists argue that Clinton, freed from all considerations linked to the elections, will be able to be more creative and, if need be, tougher toward both sides.

They assume that America's president-elect would be only too pleased to give Clinton his full moral support to finish the job of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — rather than face the prospect of inheriting a potentially explosive situation in one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.

In regard to Barak, the optimists believe his sole chance of political survival is to go to the electorate with a peace treaty and that this will drive him to cut a deal with Arafat.

The intifada, now in its sixth week, has unleashed new and potent forces within the Palestinian community, including within Arafat's own Fatah movement.

If the violence continues, there can be no guarantee that the old generation, personified in Arafat, can continue riding the tiger without falling off.