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Speak now, or forever hold your peace

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Yasser Arafat does not seem to realize that Bill Clinton has only three more weeks in office. Nobody is quite sure what will happen to Clinton when he leaves Washington _ if he does. But it's pretty sure what will happen to Arafat and a Palestinian state and the whole Middle East question: It will slide down to the bottom of the White House agenda when George W. Bush takes over the Oval Office.

You don't have to be a devotee of the Clinton legacy to wish that Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak would meet for one last stab at peace, with or without Clinton.

A settlement would be a terrific high for Clinton to leave on. But it would also be a good way to end the first year of the millennium, with something like peace in a part of the world where it is so hard to come by.

Arafat might want to keep another deadline in mind: the Israeli election in February. Israel is so torn and distraught over the violence and bloodshed that it is scarcely coherent. Polls indicate Israelis are likely to vote for Ariel Sharon, the notorious commander of Israeli troops during the massacres by Lebanese militias in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. No one could give more credibility to the concept of land for peace _ the vision of the martyred Yitzhak Rabin _ than Barak. He is his country's most decorated veteran, but lacks the touch for political warfare.

He was magnanimous in last summer's Camp David talks, and so generous in his concessions that Arafat was left thinking there must be a catch in it _ or that if he hung tough, he might get even more. Now Arafat and Barak have before them an updated blueprint from Clinton under which the Palestinians would get about 95 percent of the territories, and sovereignty over the Arab part of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In exchange, the Palestinians would accept a limit on their right to return to lands in Israel.

The question now is, according to the administration, "Does Arafat know how to say yes?" If he can't, he condemns another generation of his countrymen to rock throwing and frustration. He also can look forward to facing Ariel Sharon across a bargaining table if there ever is one.

We can only hope that someone in his entourage has called his attention to certain facts of life. In just 21 days, the White House will be under new management, and George W. Bush has other fish to fry. Nothing suggests that Bush will do the shuttling and hand-holding that Clinton undertook at the drop of a hat. He will not, at least in his early days, be willing to sit down as one side and then the other assails him with tears and moans about injustices that are not to be endured. It's like inviting yourself to sit in on some ghastly family quarrel that feeds on itself and never ends. Clinton has an unlimited appetite for this sort of thing.

When Republicans _ except the right-wing, which dotes on hard-nosed, combative, hostage-rescuing Israel _ look at the Middle East, they see oil.

The care and feeding of the Middle East could revert to the State Department, which pre-Clinton was pro-Arab, although never pro-Palestine. Maybe Arafat belatedly has recognized the risk.

Another contentious locale that should be watching the clock and counting the days is Northern Ireland. Clinton recently visited there with a rational expectation of having his patience of the last six years rewarded. He has coaxed and courted Ulster, he has taken heat, he has given food and drink and a White House welcome to its most obscure and intransigent politicians. But during his tour, on which he received an ecstatic welcome, no political ground was given.

The two parties, the Unionists and the IRA, are once again locked in the strife that so easily engulfs all discussions in Ireland. The issues are decommissioning, demilitarization and police reform. And as usual, the Good Friday agreement, which never would have happened without Clinton's fervent intervention, is at stake, and the litigators are hurling insults and the name of Oliver Cromwell at each other.

The Irish people are sick and tired of the rows, but don't always dare to go out in the streets to protest the blockheadedness of their politicians _ names are taken and so is revenge. But they can turn out for Clinton with impunity, and they did from Dublin to Dundalk. Clinton begged the leaders to compromise, but they didn't.

Maybe it will dawn on them that Bush has no sentimental or political ties to Northern Ireland, no desire to further a cause of the Kennedys. They cannot look forward to spending St. Patrick's Day at the White House. Ireland goes back to the State Department, where reverence for "the special relationship" with Britain is traditional.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate