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A tough job gets tougher in Mideast

It was never going to be easy, but in the heady days of September 1993 when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the south lawn of the White House, peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed possible at last.

Last Wednesday's attack on a bus in central Tel Aviv by a suicidal Hamas bomber, coming only days after the widely publicized kidnapping and death of a hapless Israeli conscript, now throws that into doubt.

In Israel, a beleaguered Rabin has reacted by sealing the country's borders as a collective punishment on Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. In Gaza itself, a beleaguered and increasingly unpopular Arafat has been further weakened and humiliated.

With their fears, and hopes, confirmed, the leaders of Israel's expansionist, right-wing Likud are saying "I told you so," contending that the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas have proved them right all along.

That all this comes a little more than a week after Rabin, Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize is bitterly ironic.

Ironic also is that it comes when President Clinton is about to set out to burnish his image on the stage where Rabin and King Hussein will be signing an Israel-Jordan peace agreement that could not have taken place at all had not Arafat first opened the door.

In a hastily enlarged trip, Clinton will carry his triumphal tour of the Middle East to six states including not only Kuwait, where he has again faced up to Saddam Hussein, but also Syria, where President Hafez Assad is the last holdout among Israel's direct neighbors _ all in time to be home for the November congressional elections.

Last week's events may shed some rain on the whole spectacle.

Rabin is bitter and disappointed. In the nearly four months since Arafat's return, the PLO leader has apparently failed to stop the terrorism that the Israelis themselves failed to stop in 27 years of occupation and especially since the beginning of the intifada revolt against Israeli occupation in 1987.

At home, Rabin is on the defensive and public opinion is both deeply shocked and increasingly polarized over what to do next. To continue the peace process, he will need what help Clinton can give him.

Arafat has also disappointed the very international aid institutions who could help him most but insist on transparency in the way he spends the money they have earmarked for the Palestinians. In consequence, most of it has yet to arrive. He has never been accountable for the funds of donors and apparently doesn't want to be now.

Most importantly, Arafat has been a disappointment to Palestinians themselves. Their expectations inevitably ran too high, but his style of government has also been seen as authoritarian and incompetent.

All that being said, it is not the whole story.

Israel's leaders have themselves partly to blame for Hamas. They quietly encouraged "the beards" when they were seen as a means to weaken a secular PLO and Arafat, whom Israel then considered its main enemies. Biding its time, Hamas waited and grew.

For all his imperfections, Arafat remains the only possible Palestinian partner in what is called the peace process, the only leader who might still pull it off. At times, Israel has seemed to be doing all it can to weaken him.

The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are being "thickened," land around them is still being acquired, the road network connecting them being improved _ all measures tending to make them an irreversible fait accompli when settlements finally come up for discussion in 1996.

As for the other main issue, the future of Jerusalem and, particularly, the Palestinian eastern part of the city, Palestinians from the occupied territories have not been allowed to go there for nearly two years without special permission from Israeli military authorities, even to pray. Nor has Arafat.

How can Palestinians fail to see Israel's recognition of King Hussein's role as guardian of the Muslim holy places as another attempt to bypass them and their claims that Jerusalem is their capital, too? Have Rabin and Hussein agreed to prevent a separate Palestinian state? The suspicion, if not the temptation, is always there.

And negotiations have been dragging on and on without a date yet being set for democratic elections in the still-occupied territories.

However tempting as a reaction to a horrible act of terrorism, Israel's closure of the borders last week, preventing some 65,000 Palestinians from their jobs, can only weaken Arafat further and delight Hamas by spreading the misery and humiliation on which it feeds.

If Israelis have been traumatized by terrorism and a tragic past, so have Palestinians after repeat defeats in which their homeland has progressively disappeared. They, too, have been the victims of terrorism. Only last February, for example, a suicidal settler killed 29 Muslims as they knelt in prayer in Hebron. They, too, deserve some Clinton reassurance.

Both Rabin and Arafat are in a trap, the only escape from which is strong leadership for a progressive peace that provides quick and visible dividends for both Israelis and Palestinians _ in the one case security, in the other jobs and recognition of a rightful place.

If Arafat wants to survive, sooner or later he will indeed have to face up to Hamas. But he may be able to do it better in his own time and place rather than being forced into it by Israel.

An alert reader points out that I got my Marys mixed up in Friday's column about British royalty. The Mary Stuart who was beheaded on the orders of the first Queen Elizabeth was her cousin, not her half-sister as I wrote. Elizabeth's half-sister was Mary Tudor, who preceded her on the English throne as "Bloody Mary," responsible for the persecution of Protestants in her attempt to restore Catholicism in England. My thanks for the correction.