Bill Clinton is wasting his time. The chances of a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian deal before he hands over the presidency to George W. Bush on Jan. 20 are negligible. Yasser Arafat has blown it. Ehud Barak, with the best and bravest of motives, has blown it. Peace is on hold, and it will take more than a government led by the uncompromising Ariel Sharon, campaigning on the slogan "Only Sharon can bring peace," to revive it in months or even years to come.
The final straw came this week with the revelation that Palestinian General Intelligence, Arafat's intelligence service, was behind the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus, which wounded 14 people two weeks ago. If the Shin Bet internal security service has its facts right, that destroys any vestige of faith in the Palestinian leader's will to live side by side with a Jewish state.
A suspected terrorist was arrested hours after leaving a pipe bomb under the seat of a no. 51 bus, which he detonated with a cellphone as it passed down crowded Petach Tikva Way. He was identified this week as Abdullah Abu Jaber, a 25-year-old Palestinian refugee who grew up in a camp in Jordan. He entered Israel illegally two years ago and found work, astonishingly, as a security guard at a beachfront cafe complex in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv.
Israeli security sources say he was recruited by relatives in the West Bank town of Nablus and was put to work by the Palestinian General Intelligence, commanded by the chairman's cousin, Moussa Arafat. Abu Jaber is said to have confessed to the bombing and reenacted it for investigators. He smuggled in the bomb from Nablus, which is under Palestinian rule, and was paid 200 shekels ($50) for the assignment.
According to the security establishment, as many as 80 percent of the Palestinian shootings and bombings since the intifada erupted at the end of September were perpetrated by people who either work for the Palestinian Authority or are connected to it. At least 43 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed and 500 wounded in more than 2,770 such incidents. Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility for another recent bombing, which wounded 40 people in Netanya.
It is hard to remember that six months ago, Israelis were shopping across the old Green Line border in Qalqiliya, dining in Ramallah and gambling in Jericho. It began to go wrong at Camp David in July. Seven years after the Oslo breakthrough, Barak judged that the Palestinians were ready to end the century-old conflict. He went for broke, offering Arafat the rest of the Gaza Strip, more than 90 percent of the West Bank and shared rule in Jerusalem, which would be the capital of the Palestinian as well as the Jewish state. To Barak's and Clinton's chagrin, Arafat said: "No." For him, the end of the conflict had to mean the righting of what the Palestinians perceive as an historic injustice. He tried to put the clock back 60 years. Despite the commitment they made in the Oslo accords, the Palestinians were not, it seemed, reconciled to the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in the disputed homeland.
For them, ending the conflict had to entail a Zionist acknowledgment of guilt. Not only had Israel to evacuate all the territory occupied in the 1967 war, it had to allow up to 3.5 million 1948 refugees to return to their old homes inside Israel. And it had to recognize Muslim hegemony over the Temple Mount; Arabs still talk as if the Jews' connection to their holiest site is merely a matter of conjecture.
Inspired by the Hezbollah harassment that persuaded Barak to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon last summer, Arafat reverted to violence. "The only language the Israelis understand," his information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, told an Israeli interviewer, "is the language of force." First the kids with the rocks, then the Fatah Tanzim militiamen and Palestinian police with AK-47 automatics thought they could do a Hezbollah. The first intifada, which broke out in 1987, spawned Oslo. The second intifada, they believed, would spawn a Palestinian state on Palestinian terms.
The mayhem of the past three and a half months remind me of nothing more than the Arab riots chronicled in Tom Segev's iconoclastic new history of the British mandate, "One Palestine, Complete." The same hatred, frustration and violence on the Palestinian side, the same insensitivity to Arab concerns and interests on the Jewish side.
I asked Segev, a columnist on the liberal daily Ha'aretz, what lessons today's Israelis should learn from the mandate era. His reply was bleak, unless you delude yourself that Israel can either ignore the neighbors or evict them.
"The situation is different today in the sense that Israel is a very strong country," he said. "The existence of Israel is no longer in danger. So we are facing the Arabs from a very different point of view. We should learn that the Arabs need many years of national existence as a state before they can sign a final settlement with us. The establishment of a Palestinian state should be one of the first steps in seeking peace negotiations, not the final outcome of the negotiations."
Segev pointed the difference between the psychology of Israelis and the psychology of Palestinians. "A very deep change," he argued, "has happened in Israeli society. Israelis are more secure, Israelis are more mature, Israelis don't think collectively any more. And they have realized the merit of peace.
"Israelis are ready not only for peace, but to pay a very high price for peace. And the Palestinians, I think, are not. The Palestinians need to form their institutions and get some achievements and make their mistakes and have a second and third generation to whom national existence is no longer a miracle, just as the third generation of Israelis is able to make peace, because national existence is no longer a miracle for most Israelis."
Meanwhile, we are stuck with a lame-duck Clinton, a discredited Barak, an Arafat who cannot shove the genie back in the bottle -- and a Sharon who, like the doomed French Bourbon kings, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.