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Arafat had no reason to compromise

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WASHINGTON — Three pictures on the front page of The Times told the Camp David story: Ehud Barak stunned and dismayed, Bill Clinton shattered — and Yasser Arafat grinning broadly.

Why? Because Arafat gave up nothing. But Israel's leader, prodded by a U.S. president, made concessions that broke pledges Barak made in his election campaign a year ago.

He offered Arafat virtually all the West Bank, including the vital Jordan Valley, requiring the uprooting of 40,000 Israeli settlers. He offered what amounts to right of return of thousands of Palestinians to Israel, backed up by a reported huge commitment by Clinton to pay Palestinians around the world to not return. And most unthinkable only a year ago, he offered to share sovereignty with a new Palestinian state in portions of Jerusalem.

Not enough, smiled Arafat. He went home to the cheers of intransigent Palestinians in Gaza and the praise of Egypt's unyielding Hosni Mubarak (whose regime we have propped up with $50 billion in aid since Jimmy Carter's Camp David). Arabs are delighted at the one-way flow of concessions because they now see Jerusalem "in play."

Though Clinton absolves Barak and himself from the failure of these negotiations, his desperation for a deal in time for our November election was at the root of the fiasco. Because Barak, under pressure, gave away too much too soon, nothing was left as a deal-closer.

Palestinian statehood ceased to be an Israeli bargaining chip two years ago when Hillary Clinton, on global TV, nine times embraced a Palestinian state. The salami-slice turnover of West Bank land before final-status talks was supposed to engender trust, but it only whetted Palestinian appetites; by the time Barak reached Camp David it was common knowledge that he intended to yield nearly all the land Arafat claimed.

With statehood and all the land in his pocket, what incentive did Arafat have to drop his demands for Jerusalem as his capital?

In his eyes, no incentive at all. On the contrary, he had every reason to hang tough and await more concessions. Mubarak, the Saudis and his own militant followers could sense the momentum.

At that point, Barak realized he was conceding too much for Israeli voters to bear. So as the summit broke up he labeled all his concessions "invalid."

But to Arafat, they are valid forever. Once laid on the table, they cannot so easily be snatched back. Thus has Clinton's unwise summit gamble raised unreasonable Arab expectations and has moved the center of gravity of an ultimate settlement away from Israel's security interests.

You have to sympathize with Barak, a good man learning diplomacy the hardest way. Through Clinton, he offered Assad all the Golan Heights, only to be rebuffed. He offered Arafat virtually all the West Bank, and was scorned again. Land for peace? The land Arab leaders want is the land of Israel.

A nonpolitical old friend in Israel's still-undivided capital (where the U.S. Embassy ought to be relocated now) says: "The summit's only benefit to Israel was that it made clear to the world who wants peace and who does not." In time, an Israeli unburdened with Barak's concessions will find a Palestinian interlocutor who wants peace, too.

New York Times News Service