Mr Clinton is not a lame duck president when it comes to the Middle East

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The Independent Online

Amid the continuing chaos of the US elections, it is easy to forget the man who still sits in the White House, and who might yet have a historic role to play. The dying days of the Clinton era, before he shuffles off this political coil, could be a last chance for the Middle East peace process to be kicked back into life.

Amid the continuing chaos of the US elections, it is easy to forget the man who still sits in the White House, and who might yet have a historic role to play. The dying days of the Clinton era, before he shuffles off this political coil, could be a last chance for the Middle East peace process to be kicked back into life.

President Clinton has devoted extraordinary efforts to making some kind of peace stick in the wake of the Oslo Agreement. Neither Al Gore nor George W Bush are likely to match his endeavours. The new president, whoever he is, is more likely to focus on other issues, at least during his first year in office. Nor will Mr Gore or Mr Bush have much interest in a process in which, if things go well, credit will still go to Mr Clinton, and if things go badly, it will be their fault.

This means that 20 January, the date of the presidential inauguration, is an all-too-real cut-off point. And, in one area at least, Mr Clinton is no lame-duck president. Despite all the gloom, there is still room for optimism. Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, has shown more readiness to make concessions than his predecessors have done. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, conscious of his own mortality, must want to leave a legacy of a peaceful Palestinian state. In that sense, we have a window of opportunity before 20 January, despite all the bloodshed. It is a window that cannot be ignored.

At Camp David in July, the two sides came remarkably close to a deal. The killing on the streets in recent weeks has made it seem that peace is unthinkable. As in Northern Ireland, however, both sides need to think the unthinkable in terms of the compromises that they are willing to make. A number of important stumbling blocks remain. There has to be agreement on the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Mutual tolerance is needed at the Temple Mount - a holy place for Jews and Muslims alike, where the provocative visit by Ariel Sharon kick-started the recent violence. The status of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians regard as their capital, remains endlessly argued over.

Both sides must acknowledge that intransigence will get them nowhere. Mr Arafat has allowed the Tanzim gunmen to gain the upper hand. This, in turn, has reinforced the brutal and over-zealous reaction of Israeli forces in recent weeks. The killings of four Israelis on Monday (bringing the total to 24), after the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians in recent weeks, teaches the same lesson that the British learnt after Bloody Sunday in 1972: official violence breeds terrorist violence; it does not suppress it.

If both sides do not make some concessions, then Israelis and Palestinians alike - and, by extension, the entire Middle East - will be the losers. Mr Arafat seemed, after the collapse of the Camp David talks, to have no cards left to play. He was rejected as a negotiating partner by the Israelis, and by many ordinary Palestinians who felt angry that he had, as they saw it, tried to sell them out.

Paradoxically, however, the Palestinian rebellion may have strengthened Mr Arafat's hand, by demonstrating more clearly than ever before why the Israelis need somebody they can do business with. Mr Arafat may fear that he will go down in history as the man who never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But the opportunity is still there to be taken.

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