Barak and Arafat come the last mile


NO ONE supports Ehud Barak's quest for peaceful coexistence with Palestine except the Israeli people, at least a modest majority. Deserted by coalition partners who were never really with him, he comes as though alone to fulfill his May 1999 election mandate.

The impasse from which he comes is an anomaly of Israel's constitutional experimentation. This prime minister was popularly elected, as if a president, yet requires a majority in the lower house of parliament to continue governing. Mr. Barak polled better than his Labor Party a year ago, and formed a coalition with parties that never shared his vision.

Their desertion on the eve of Mr. Barak's departure for Camp David was the best evidence that this summit might seal the illusive deal. If they had not feared so, they would have remained in government and not proceeded to the vote of no confidence that narrowly failed yesterday.

If Mr. Barak can reach agreement with Yasser Arafat, he believes Israelis will ratify it.

That said, the Camp David summit does not promise success. Familiarity with the agenda does not resolve it. Now is crunch time. The two leaders must compromise and then sell the terms at home.

Chairman Arafat is also on shaky ground, resented by many Palestinians for autocratic rule, overtaken in militancy and Islamic zeal by Hamas and other groups.

How will the pair reconcile 4 million Palestinian refugees' demand for a right of return with Israel's need for acceptance and security; Israel's commitment to an undivided Jerusalem with the Palestinians' demand for half; Israel's strategic defenses with Palestinian demands for 100 percent of the West Bank; the position of 170,000 Israelis in 145 settlements?

All seem intractable. Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat must not think so, or they would not have come.

Their deadline for agreement is Sept. 13. President Clinton, who means to get deeply involved, has an earlier deadline. He is supposed to go to Japan for a summit of the Group of Eight on July 19. He, too, may face a difficult choice.

An editorial Tuesday should have described Israel's Knesset as a single-chamber parliament.
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