President Clinton failed to restart the Middle East peace process at the United Nations’ “millennial” summit in New York in September. In meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Clinton made one final attempt to provide his presidency with a badly needed foreign policy success by brokering a deal.

His failure is not surprising, and it may have a silver lining: It is better not to sign an agreement than to rush negotiations because of an arbitrary deadline. There is little room for compromise, either on the status of Jerusalem or on the return of Palestinian refugees to their pre-194S homes. Following Clinton’s meeting in Cairo last August with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it became clear that there is no political will, even among America’s Arab allies, to end the current Middle East standstill by pressing Mr. Arafat for more concessions. Having postponed his plan to declare independence on September 13, he can concede no more at this stage.

On the other hand, Mr. Barak’s position is precarious and —with a single vote majority in the Knesset—any hint of a compromise could bring his government down when the legislature reconvenes in November. He will need a stronger mandate from the Israeli electorate if he wants to forge a real peace agreement. He has hinted at a deal that would leave the status of Jerusalem open, but that is not realistic: Without a formal agreement on Jerusalem, there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East.

Jerusalem is revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. When the talks at Camp David broke down last July, this was the issue on which neither side was willing to compromise. The Palestinians insist that East Jerusalem, captured by Israeli troops from Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967, should be the capital of their future independent state. The Israelis, however, regard the whole of Jerusalem as their sovereign territory and God-given indivisible capital.

Mr. Clinton was hoping that other Arab states would give Arafat the cover he needed to compromise on the status of Jerusalem and that the Israeli public, in a referendum on the issue, would prove more flexible than their elected politicians in the Knesset. But Mr. Arafat’s credibility among his own people would collapse if he were to give up on the demand for East Jerusalem, and the Knesset would vote Prime Minister Barak’s government out of office before allowing it to seek a deal that would not win parliamentary approval.

Mr. Barak has used his slim parliamentary majority as an excuse for not making concessions in the past, but he now must realize that his negotiating position would be strengthened if he could obtain a clear mandate from the Israeli public to forge a peace agreement. He is preparing to wage an early election campaign on a radically secular platform, writing off the ultra-Orthodox Shas and other religious parties as potential coalition partners. He is trying to appeal to Israel’s secular majority by dismantling the Religious Affairs Ministry and giving Israel a written constitution which would diminish the power of the Orthodox establishment. If he succeeds, it will be good news for the “peace process,” but—to Mr. Clinton’s chagrin—the fruits of that success will belong to the next administration in Washington.

Some mixed-sovereignty formula that recognizes the competing claims on all or part of Jerusalem may eventually be devised, but it is unclear why Mr. Clinton thinks he is better qualified to find it than his successor. In the final months of his presidency, the Middle East “peace process” is at a stand still, but that is no great tragedy: All of Clinton’s talk about “deadlines” and “last chances” was empty rhetoric. As an editorialist declared in the Jordan Times: “It is naive to expect that all the outstanding issues in this century-old conflict can be resolved in a matter of weeks or months. It is also politically irresponsible and morally wrong for leaders on both sides to substitute personal political timetables for international legal norms as the driving force for the negotiations.”

Both Arabs and Israelis know that Mr. Clinton does not give a hoot for the justice, peace, or happiness of the people of the Holy Land. They don’t mind the stalemate while the political landscape is being rearranged. The only party desperate for a quick deal was our disgraced President.