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Tuesday, 2 January, 2001, 14:07 GMT
Analysis: Can Arafat afford to reject deal?
Yasser Arafat
Pondering: Can Arafat get better than what is on offer?

By the BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been in Washington for crucial talks with President Clinton about the future of the Middle East peace process.

Palestinian officials say they were seeking clarification of the lastest American proposals while the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, says he doubts a deal can be reached before Mr Clinton leaves the White House on 20 January.

The fact that the Palestinian leader has been talking with Mr Clinton is a sign that he is reluctant to come out with a formal rejection of the American proposals.

The outline of a deal is now apparent, but for the Palestinians that outline is still fuzzy round the edges.

Under the American plan, the Palestinians would get virtually all of the West Bank. But how does that square with the proposal that some 80% of Jewish settlers would remain there?

Jerusalem confusion

There are reports that the Palestinians would gain sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif - the sacred area in Jerusalem which Jews know as Temple Mount.

Palestinian militant in front of banner of Yasser Arafat
Militants face the prospect of Sharon as Israel's PM
And yet Ehud Barak flatly denies he is ready to make that all-important concession.

No less sensitive, it is being widely reported Mr Arafat would have to give up the right of return of the Palestinian refugees - that is a red line many Palestinians are unwilling to cross.

Many commentators believe this is the best deal Mr Arafat can expect to get. But at this fateful moment he himself appears hesitant.

If he cannot get better terms from Mr Clinton, he may calculate he can afford to wait in the hope that the incoming Bush administration will be less friendly to Israel than the Clinton administration has been.

But the flaw in this argument is that the absence of a deal in the next couple of weeks would almost certainly mean the victory of the hard-line Ariel Sharon in next month's Israeli prime ministerial election.

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See also:

31 Dec 00 | Middle East
Barak: It's me or war
02 Jan 01 | Middle East
Barak casts doubt on peace deadline
26 Dec 00 | Media reports
Israeli press wary of Clinton plan
23 Oct 00 | Middle East
Claiming the 'Promised Land'
25 Dec 00 | Europe
Pope laments Mid-East violence
31 Dec 00 | Middle East
The Kahanes: Like father, like son
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