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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST | NEWS ANALYSIS

Barak, Arafat Are Grim and Have Little Leeway

Mideast: With public anger boiling and their mutual trust shattered, the leaders take a hard line.

October 17, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — It was evident Monday in their faces, in their clenched jaws and hardened eyes. There were no smiles as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat sat down to one of the most painful Middle East summits ever.

Whether they were headed for a minimal agreement or utter failure, Barak and Arafat were confronting a mutual animosity stoked in more than two weeks of deadly street battles. Two leaders who not so long ago called each other "partners" could barely glance at each other, and reflected in their estrangement was the irreparable breakdown of a once-promising pursuit of peace.

"This is not a happy family reunion," veteran Israeli diplomat Avi Pazner said Monday evening. "It is a tragedy, especially for those of us who cherished the peace process."

The attitudes of Barak and Arafat at this Red Sea resort have been shaped by hatreds, by the revolts of their respective domestic publics and by shifting regional dynamics. The anger in Arafat's streets, the fragility of Barak's government, the radicalization of popular opinion on both sides--all have left the two leaders with little room to compromise.

And, to all appearances, neither leader trusts the other.

Violence, which provided the motive to call the summit, erupted again Monday, when Palestinian police and civilians clashed with Israeli troops, leaving two Palestinians dead and about 50 injured.

This time, however, the trouble sprang from demonstrations against Arafat and his participation in the Sharm el Sheik meeting, which many Palestinians feared would force their leader to surrender to Israeli and U.S. demands.

Arafat has to tread carefully not to appear to cave in, lest he risk losing the considerable support he has won among his people in the last weeks. Israel is demanding that he stop the violence, but Arafat's sagging popularity soared after the fighting began.

The Israelis are convinced that Arafat wants to keep the heat turned up until this weekend's Arab summit in Cairo, when they believe he would be able to extract anti-Israel measures from his Arab neighbors.

Senior Israeli officials now concede that Arafat cannot end the street clashes simply with a snap of his fingers. On Monday, they were likening Arafat to a surfer who catches a monster wave and exploits it, but then has to ride it out gradually.

After watching the Islamic guerrilla organization Hezbollah drive Israel from Lebanon, many Palestinians believe force is the only language Israel understands. They are keen to press ahead with their protest and are telling Arafat so.

Coming at Arafat from the other side, meanwhile, are the very Arab states whose backing he has always craved. Egypt and Jordan, co-sponsors of the Sharm el Sheik summit, are alarmed at a rise in unrest in their own cities that, if hijacked by domestic Islamic movements, could threaten their regimes.

"Failure [at Sharm el Sheik] means the explosion of the whole region," the London-based pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper warned in an editorial Monday. "And it is not a secret that the Arab pressure--and the U.S. and the European--on Abu Ammar [Arafat's nom de guerre] was caused by fear from the [masses] and not any patriotic convictions."

Arafat appeared to be fulfilling one Israeli demand--and immediately was attacked for having done so. Palestinians reported Monday the rearrest of about 50 members of the radical Islamic Hamas movement who had been freed in recent days by the Palestinian Authority. Israel had insisted on the recapture of the men, many of whom were implicated in terrorist bombings. A Hamas spokesman charged that Arafat was capitulating to Israel.

Meanwhile, Barak has his own set of pressures.

Having lost most of his government, he will now almost certainly be forced to form an emergency coalition with the right-wing opposition, led by Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former army general whose visit to a disputed holy site Sept. 28 triggered the chaos that has convulsed the region.

Sharon has already warned Barak not to make concessions at Sharm el Sheik. Barak, it seems, has nowhere else to turn.

The turmoil of the last two weeks, and especially the mob lynching of two Israeli reservists Thursday, has pushed much of Israeli public opinion to abandon support for the peace process and seek refuge in a cynicism that brooks no benevolence toward the Palestinians.

That deprives Barak of the public backing for his pursuit of a definitive peace accord with Arafat. In the 15 months since he took office, making peace has been the cornerstone of Barak's government.

The potential for disaster in negotiating with the Palestinians is precisely why successive Israeli governments--Barak's included--preferred to seek peace first with Syria, said Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University and a former chief peace negotiator.

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