Does Mr Barak's victory really change anything?

He has said he will not cede the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. So what hope for Palestine?
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IN THE dirt of the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camp and in Mar Elias, they were not celebrating the election victory of Ehud Barak yesterday. Over the entrance to Mar Elias camp with its open sewers and old, worn water pipes running down the laneways, there hung an iron map of Palestine: the original Palestine, Haifa as well as Ramallah, Tel Aviv as well as Nablus, Jerusalem as well as Jericho, the whole shebang. And they are not going to get it back.

They would like - the Palestinians who live among the garbage here - to have the same "right of return" that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have promised to the Kosovo Albanians. But Mr Clinton and Mr Blair did not intend their promise to apply to the Palestinians from Haifa and the rest of that part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948.

"The differences between the Likud and Labour are minor," the spokesman for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine says. "Labour wants the annexation of 52 per cent of the West Bank, Likud wanted 64 per cent - this is the difference for the Palestinians."

True, Mr Barak wants peace. But everyone wants peace: the Palestinians and the Israelis. Yet Mr Barak has said that he will not cede the Arab quarter of Jerusalem to Palestine. So what hope for Palestine? The Arab world - the supine, humiliated Arab dictatorships whose leaders have pleaded for Washington's love and support and money - welcomed the Labour leader's victory in the Israeli elections. Out came Egypt's familiar "hand of peace" (and oh, if only President Hosni Mubarak would hold the same kind of free elections which Israel conducts). "Egypt is ready to co-operate with the new Israeli Prime Minister to revive the peace process and to change the general atmosphere in the region which was extremely poisoned over the last three years," the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, said.

And from Jordan - whose Plucky Little King (Mark 2) prayed for Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat - came equally familiar words. "Hopefully," the Deputy Prime Minister, Ayman Majali said, "we will witness a serious move on the peace process, on the Palestinian-Israeli track and on the Syrian- Israeli and Lebanese tracks and hopefully we will witness a serious move for a comprehensive, just and durable peace in the Middle East." But note the double "hopefully" and the reference to a "just" peace. And the use of the American phrase "tracks". For years, the Israelis have been trying to divide the Arabs into these different tracks. The Palestinians fear Mr Barak will do just the same.

Of course, Yasser Arafat joined in the applause. "I respect the choice of this democratic election," he said without missing a heartbeat when he used the word "democratic" - that quality which Arafat's Palestine so miserably lacks. "I give my best wishes to Mr Barak." In the Gulf, many a sheikh will be breathing a similar sigh of relief. Now that the awful Mr Netanyahu has gone, they can deal with the nice Mr Barak. Just like that.

But history - especially Palestinian history - does not work like that. If there is to be a Palestinian state - the only hope for a real peace - then the Palestinians will have to have a capital in part of Jerusalem. They will have to see an end to occupation, an end to the theft of Arab land and the continued building of Jewish settlements on Arab land, an end to the confiscation of Palestinian identity papers, an end to the demolition of Arab homes. Mr Barak has promised none of this. Indeed, he may be more interested in kicking to touch with a peace overture to Syria and Lebanon rather than Palestine, leaving Mr Arafat to suffocate for a while longer in his Gaza midden as the Palestinian leader's popularity sinks even lower.

And why not? Syria still demands, consistently, the return of the occupied Golan Heights. President Assad had held out (in Syria's negotiations with the Rabin-Peres Labour government) for a withdrawal of Israeli troops to the borders of 4 June, 1967, a frontier which would give Damascus that part of Golan which Arafat considers Palestine, the bit which is the source of water - the Middle East's gold. Mr Rabin refused. Mr Barak may accept. So goodbye, Mr Arafat would conclude, to another bit of Palestine.

Certainly, a peace with Syria would allow Israel to withdraw from the cauldron of Lebanon - "unconditionally", according to UN Security council Resolution 425, though Mr Barak may have other ideas - and save its soldiers from the increasing attacks of Hizbollah guerrillas. Mr Barak has promised to be out of Lebanon in a year. But on the ground things do not seem that easy.

The Middle East has changed since Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in Israel three years ago. President Mohamed Khatami of Iran - elected democratically with a far more devastating popular vote than Mr Barak - has been meeting King Fahd of Saudi Arabia after visiting President Assad in Damascus. For Iran is no longer the pariah of the region.

The Iranians are now talking of a "strong regional alliance" between Tehran and the Arab Gulf. And they have reason to do so. The Arab kings and emirs are tired of America's crusade against Iraq and its sanctions- cull of Iraqi children. They are weary of Washington's vacillation in the face of Israel's refusal to abide by the American "peace process". They are distrustful of an America which demands obedience to UN resolutions from Arabs but none from Israel. Back, then, to that hovel in the Mar Elias refugee camp yesterday. "The Labour government did not block settlements - it went on building them," Mr Natour said. "They have a genius for prolonging the `peace process', to create new settlements, to `Judaicise' Jerusalem, to create facts on the ground. The Israelis like to play on differences of interest between the Arabs."

Most of the Lebanese press took Mr Natour's view, warning readers that the difference between Labour and Likud is not that great. "The wings of angels will not sprout on the shoulders of Barak," the daily An Nahar warned. "Claws already decorate the fingers of Barak."

Pessimism, of course, comes as easily to the Arabs as optimism comes to the Israelis. But it's going to be a long haul. For the Middle East - and for the United States of America - Barak is better than Netanyahu. But it is not peace in our time.