Going the last mile for Middle East peace Clinton trip: Risks mount to what seemed a good idea in October at Wye Plantation.

December 12, 1998

NEVER did a president fly off to promote peace amid so many risks, political and physical.

President Clinton's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, today through Tuesday, grew out of the Wye Plantation talks, in which he persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to revitalize their peace accord. Both thought it would be fine for him to witness the Palestinian National Council affirming its 1996 repeal of Palestine Liberation Organization charter clauses calling for destruction of Israel.

Now they aren't so sure. To many Israelis, Mr. Clinton's visit to Gaza looks like recognition of Palestinian statehood, an issue left to final Israeli-Palestinian talks that are vainly scheduled to conclude in May. To many Palestinians opposing Mr. Arafat, the visit appears to legitimize minimalist geography and powers for their statelet.

Mr. Clinton seeks the symbolism of balance. He is to visit the fortress Masada in Israel, the last redoubt of Jewish zealots holding off Roman conquest in 66 A.D. And he will go to Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, holy to Christians worldwide who are neither Israeli nor Palestinian and whose interest is peace rather than victory for one over the other.

But the visit is also an invitation to terror, which is committed for public attention. Through their acts, Palestinian terrorists humiliate moderates and manipulate Israeli politics to their own ends.

The trip comes not only when Mr. Clinton's fate is in the balance but when Mr. Netanyahu appears a lame duck. Israel's embattled prime minister managed to postpone for two weeks a vote of confidence in the Knesset he appears likely to lose.

Half his Likud coalition wants to dump him because it opposes concessions to Palestinians. The Labor Party opposition favors his latest policy but doubts his sincerity and would do nothing to keep him. His fall would put the accord in doubt until the next election.

Mr. Clinton has reasons aplenty not to go. But to pull out could bring forward the collapse he wants to prevent.

Mr. Clinton performs best in extreme adversity. What cannot be doubted, should he see this trip through, is that he is going the last mile for peace in the Middle East.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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