JERUSALEM - For a deal to be reached at the Camp David summit, which starts next week, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians will have to risk heavy political punishment and break free of a straitjacket created by their own rhetoric.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat go to Washington politically weakened, though not crippled.
Barak's fragile hold on his coalition was further strained yesterday by the announced resignation from his government of Natan Sharansky, a respected figure and a leader of Israel's large community of Russian immigrants.
Sharansky, who supports retaining Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said the prime minister is headed for the summit without any consensus in the Cabinet on negotiating positions. At the same time, the government is bracing for the departure of another coalition member, the National Religious Party.
Barak might well be able to scrape together the votes to pass a peace agreement without them, but will likely have to make further humiliating concessions to keep the support of the main ultra-Orthodox Party, Shas. And even if Shas backs him in parliament, there is strong doubt that a majority of its voters would be a supportive in a referendum.
Arafat's hold on leadership, unlike Barak's, is unquestioned, because no one has mounted a serious challenge. But Arafat has serious political problems of his own, fed by widespread public discontent with the incomplete results of the peace process seven years after the Oslo accords and disenchantment with perceived cronyism and corruption within the Palestinian Authority.
A recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center put trust in Arafat at 32 percent and trust in his Fatah Party at 35 percent. At the same time, 90 percent said there were varying degrees of corruption within Palestinian Authority institutions.
This level of distrust will not be helped by the fact that Arafat accepted Clinton's invitation to the summit without first extracting a public pledge from Barak for a major territorial withdrawal or a further large release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Barak and Arafat have sought to shore up support by repeating hard-line positions that, six days before the summit, look irreconcilable. Each side has taken to calling them "red lines."
Barak has vowed that there will be no return to the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that Palestinian refugees will not be allowed to return to their former homes in Israel and that Israel will continue to claim sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that the world views as occupied territory.
Arafat has demanded all of the West Bank and Gaza, removal of Jewish settlements, a right of return for refugees and a Palestinian state with the capital in East Jerusalem.
These positions have assumed the character of a mantra, making any deviation by either side look like a sellout. Creative minds have proposed innovative compromises for all of these issues, but in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pragmatism has usually taken a back seat to ideology.
If there's any incentive for each side to compromise, it is that failure to reach an agreement could produce an outbreak of violence worse than the brief taste that each side got in mid-May, when Fatah-inspired riots spiraled into gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers.
Arafat's threat to declare statehood this year without an agreement from Israel marks an effort to reshuffle the deck in his favor. Such a declaration could win broad international sympathy. Barak was concerned enough about this to discuss it in meetings yesterday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.
But Barak has promised to retaliate for any such unilateral announcement by annexing the territory still under Israel's control, leaving Arafat's "state" as a mere patchwork of territory that now comprises two-thirds of Gaza and 40 percent of the West Bank.
At the 1978 Camp David summit, which produced the historic treaty between Israel and Egypt the next year, each side's concessions were softened by large amounts of American aid, carried with the help of Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill. This time, however, American generosity has been called into question by congressional anger over Israel's plan to sell sophisticated early warning radar-equipped aircraft to China.