Bill Clinton got Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to drop by Oslo recently to partake of the optimism generated by an earlier Norwegian diplomatic foray in the Middle East. "Revitalize," "last sprint," "in high gear": These were the words Mr. Clinton used in pep-rally fashion to promote the early making of a "framework agreement" between Israelis and Palestinians and then a full-fledged peace treaty. But this is a timid and unrealistic approach to the core Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It is happy talk that overlooks the roughness of the terrain that lies ahead.

Barak is a legitimate leader, his people's choice. To broaden his political reach, he has built a workable coalition between his center-left constituency and the center-right slices of the party he defeated at the polls. That leaves him embracing what is called the Israeli consensus: to seek a more normalized but far from normal status with the Palestinians and to call it peace, and to retain large swaths of West Bank territory, including East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank settlements. By the Israeli consensus, Palestinians get a shrunken entity of abridged sovereignty to be called a state.

By contrast, Arafat is not elected, not legitimized in that sense; his is a typical Arab police regime that rules by palace favor and rough stuff. He lacks the strength to achieve the ambitious territorial and political goals embedded in the "Palestinian consensus," which supports full territorial return and authentic statehood. We may yet come to learn whether he also lacks the strength to survive a failure to achieve those goals.

The fact hanging like a guillotine over this negotiation is the gross inequality of the two parties. They are at something of a stalemate, but it is nowhere near a balance. It is a conspicuous and irreducible imbalance in Israel's advantage. This accounts for the different cards the two bring to the table, and it will account for what different results they may take from the table.

Israel is the kind of democratic society that has more trouble dealing with Palestinian kids than with Palestinian grown-ups. Still, it disposes of vastly superior conventional power. It is an economic dynamo, ready and fit to go global. Notwithstanding signs of a culture under strain, it remains a society of substantial morale and purpose. In the United States it has a patron of such manifest faithfulness and generosity as to make Israel the most envied client state in the world.

Arafat's Palestinian Authority has none of the above. The Palestinian national movement is in the position of having as its principal means of protest and defense: (1) odd bands of terrorists and (2) succeeding generations of young stone throwers. These are forces whose turn to violence puts them beyond Arafat's capacity to manipulate as a tool of his own. They pay him little mind, regarding him as a creature of a sure sellout to Israel and the United States.

Inevitably, the inequality of Israelis and Palestinians in terms of leadership, competence and purposefulness shapes their diplomatic interaction. What it comes down to is that Israel is too strong, and the prospective Palestine too weak, to support the making of the vaunted "peace of the brave." Such a desirable, dignified and durable outcome would leave two states equal not in power--obviously that's out--but at least in self-respect.

But the deal the two are headed toward now will be no peace of the brave. It will be a peace of the strong, essentially an Israeli peace. It will leave the Palestinians torn. Some will accept it grudgingly as the best possible deal under the circumstances, and others will resume resistance in one form or another.

The lesson for Israel is not that it should tie a hand behind its back or otherwise yield its superior bargaining position or take imprudent risks with its future security. The lesson is that it should explore the advantages that might flow to it from a keener appreciation of the dilemma of Palestinian weakness.

Specifically and now, the Israeli practice of unilaterally building and enlarging settlements in the West Bank, even while shaving back on a few of them, needs to be seen for what it is. It is an inflammatory and reckless policy that, by aggravating the possibilities of resistance, works against the security interests of Israel. The policy humiliates Palestinians in their most emotionally vulnerable nerve ending: their claim to lost land. It preempts negotiation.

From the United States, Israelis and Palestinians need not cheerleading but a concentration on the heart of this matter.