GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - As Yasser Arafat braces for a month of brinkmanship, leading Palestinians say they are disillusioned with America's mediating role and prepared to wait for a new U.S. president to get a peace deal they can accept.
"We are waiting for the end of the Clinton-[Secretary of State Madeleine K.] Albright administration," said Hani al-Hassan, a longtime political adviser to the Palestinian leader. "We will see. Maybe a better president will come."
Arafat returned here yesterday after meetings in New York in which President Clinton failed to break a deadlock between the Palestinian leader and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak over Jerusalem's holy sites.
Bowing to international pressure, the Palestinian leadership is expected today to delay its declaration of statehood, originally set for this week, and give negotiators another month to reach an agreement ending the 50-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But neither Palestinians, Israelis nor Americans are optimistic about a breakthrough.
"Efforts are still taking place, as President Clinton said, and these efforts will continue in coming days in Palestine and the region," Arafat said before meeting with the leadership. In a speech to the closed session, he reportedly urged a delay in the declaration, saying Clinton had asked him to give the new talks a chance.
"Within four weeks, things will be clarified - whether we're going to reach agreement or whether we'll face a final deadlock for a very long time," said another of Arafat's advisers, Nabil Abu Rdeinah. "The coming four weeks are very crucial, and very dangerous. The coming four weeks are the last chance for peace."
Arafat has refused to budge from his claim to Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in 1967. He also rejects sharing sovereignty with Israel over the Haram al Sharif, the plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Many Palestinians say a compromise on either issue could shatter a bond between Arafat and his people.
"He has made a commitment to peace, but I don't think he can afford to go the way of self-negation or self-destruction," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and longtime Arafat adviser. "He really is in a historical dilemma, a real tragic dilemma."
Arafat may believe he has powerful negotiating leverage, because Clinton wants to cap his presidency with a peace agreement and Barak needs one to sell to the Israeli public in new elections.
"Mr. Clinton wants to get the Nobel Prize. Barak wants to save his government," Hassan said.
But if no deal is forthcoming, Palestinian officials are preparing to wait to see what kind of governments take shape in Israel and Washington next year.
Barak's minority government is not expected to survive long after the Israeli parliament returns from recess late next month. A vote of no-confidence would require new elections.
After Al Gore or George W. Bush is inaugurated in January, it is likely to be months before the new administration has a Mideast policy team in place and ready to launch a new peace initiative.
But Palestinians no longer see this as necessarily bad. Distrustful of Barak, they also say the U.S. mediators have abandoned a neutral role to side with Israel.
"We have faith in President Clinton but not in others," said Mohammad Nashashibi, the Palestinian finance minister. Reminded of Clinton's short time left in office, he said: "Never mind. We will find out how the other one is when he comes in."
The working relationship between Clinton and Arafat, built up over years of intense presidential involvement in the peace process, may be fraying.
"There is a chemistry" between Arafat and Clinton, says Ashrawi, but "at the same time, I don't think Clinton has gone far enough to justify President Arafat's faith in him."
In recent months, the thrust of U.S. involvement has been to stress the Israeli prime minister's political problems and urge Arafat to be more flexible, says James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.
"The way the debate is framed is, 'Israel can't do it. Public opinion won't have it, so, Arafat, you have to do it,'" Zogby said.
Frustrated U.S. officials see in Arafat's rigid stance on Jerusalem a refusal to appreciate or begin to understand Jewish people's attachment to the Temple Mount, which Jews revere as the site of the first and second temples. Some Israelis and Americans say they believe Arafat wants to be the Jerusalem equivalent of the king of Saudi Arabia and be recognized worldwide as the custodian of the city's holy places.
But Arafat's stance is partly born of distrust derived from a series of instances in which Palestinians say Israel has violated agreements or delayed implementing them, says Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who lobbies for the Palestinians. "Palestinians deeply and genuinely believe that if they acquiesce in joint sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif, it will be taken away from them," he said.
Despite Israel's threat to retaliate if the Palestinians declare statehood before an agreement is reached, delays are causing growing frustration among Palestinian officials. Some of them want to introduce symbols of independence. For instance, Nashashibi wants to negotiate border-crossing agreements with Israel and Jordan that would undercut Israeli control of the frontier.