Stopping short of Mideast peace


NO ONE can say they didn't try. President Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat walked several last miles in two weeks. They nearly broke up, went back, ended without agreement.

This does not mean the talks failed, in the sense of breaking irretrievably down -- though it may come to that. It means they got closer, still short of the framework agreement they committed themselves to achieve by Sept. 13, and hit the wall.

They need a breather. Mr. Barak began recriminations, with Mr. Arafat sure to follow. They have looked over the abyss and understand the violence that can break out in both societies if failure is admitted. They pledged to finish the job.

From President Clinton's press conference, one may infer that the two sides saw how they might agree on borders, settlers and refugees if they could agree on Jerusalem, which they did not.

From Mr. Clinton's careful specificity that Mr. Barak moved more than Mr. Arafat, one may infer that Israel offered Palestinian sovereignty over much of East Jerusalem but not the Old City. Mr. Arafat is holding out for Palestinian sovereignty over all of Christian and Muslim Old City, omitting only the Jewish Quarter and Western Wall.

For that impasse, the 11th-hour intervention of three Christian faiths for an international guarantee of the Old City might provide a symbolic cover, though no international or Christian instrumentality for running the place is in sight.

None of the concessions made is binding without total agreement. But the conceptual leaps would come easier next time.

If stalemate returns, it is easy to imagine Hamas resuming terrorism against Israel. Shin Bet, Israel's security service, warned of Temple Mount advocacy groups that might damage the two ancient mosques as a precursor to rebuilding the Temple.

The brunt of U.S. diplomacy should be to push both sides forward, to offer bridging proposals where useful. They came so far and got so close, that the past two weeks in rain-drenched Frederick County should not be allowed to have been in vain.

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