Their honeymoon was shorter than Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra's. The bloom is off, and so are the gloves. Yasser Arafat charges "an attempt to avoid the accurate and honest implementation of" the Wye River peace accords. Ehud Barak, Arafat's intended, accuses him of "inflexibility" and trying to "put up obstacles" to peace. Arafat, unable to go home to mother, calls his friend Bill at the White House to complain.
Arafat is miffed. Clinton is confounded. The irony is thick. For three years, Clinton's Middle East hands prayed and maneuvered for a Labor government in Israel, one they assumed would docilely walk in the path of peace as prescribed by Washington. Now they have it. Beware what you wish for.
In May, Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the administration's bete noire, fell to Labor's Ehud Barak, a man so favored by Clinton that he lent him the cream of his own campaign team. It is only August, and we have already hit the first stone wall on the path to peace: Barak is reluctant to carry out the Wye River agreements, forced on Netanyahu by Clinton himself.
Why is Barak balking? The story goes back to the so-called Oslo II agreement of 1995. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's last major act before his assassination and by far his worst. Oslo I (the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn) had given Arafat a small foothold in the area (Gaza and Jericho) and put off the big decisions on final peace and final borders. Oslo II, however, astonishingly promised the Palestinians three "further redeployments" -- unilateral Israeli withdrawals from West Bank territory -- that Arafat understood would give him just about all of the West Bank before final negotiations on final borders.
To Barak, fresh from leaving his post as army chief of staff and then in Rabin's cabinet, Oslo II looked so lopsided and crazy that he refused to vote for it. He could not understand why Israel was giving away its only bargaining chip -- the West Bank -- before the bargaining.
Netanyahu had similar misgivings. He tried to minimize the damage by making these "further redeployments" token and symbolic. Arafat was upset, went to Madeleine Albright, and found succor. She decreed that Netanyahu had to withdraw from exactly 13 percent of the West Bank (Israel had already withdrawn from 27 percent) -- a number she plucked from thin Foggy Bottom air and then insisted upon as if it were scripturally sanctioned.
Netanyahu held out for as long as he could, then capitulated at Wye River, knowing that Israel cannot indefinitely defy its American patron. Netanyahu had given up 2 percent of the 13 percent by the time he was defeated by Barak. Now it is Barak's turn to deliver the rest.
Barak is in no mood to do so. Maybe the first 5 percent or so. But the next 5 or 6 percent would leave a dozen Israeli settlements isolated in Palestinian territory, sitting ducks for Palestinian violence. So Barak has been appealing to Arafat to forgo this last 5 or 6 percent and plunge directly into the final negotiations. Arafat will have none of it. Hence the deadlock.
In the end, Barak will probably have to give in. He cannot indefinitely position himself to the right of Netanyahu's Wye agreement. But his stubbornness bodes ill for Clinton, eager for another gaudy White House signing ceremony before the history books close on his scandal-plagued presidency.
Barak knows that by simply being non-Bibi, he automatically commands goodwill from this administration, and he is quite adept at exploiting it. But he takes positions almost as hard-line as Netanyahu's, his fellow commando in bygone days.
Barak's bobbing and weaving on Wye shows that, unlike his Labor predecessor (Shimon Peres) and other members of the dovish party he leads, he is not prepared to put his faith in wild-eyed visions of a messianic Middle East in which territory doesn't matter and everything is goodwill.
He is looking for peace but knows it will be an armed peace. And he wants to make sure Israel has the territory from which to defend itself against an adversary that, however soothing the words it offers in English, still deeply wishes the eradication of the Jewish state.
If Clinton thinks he is having a hard time navigating Barak through Wye, it is but a hint of things to come. When the final talks on Jerusalem and permanent borders begin, Clinton may find himself looking back wistfully at the Netanyahu days. At least then he had someone to kick around.