WASHINGTON - In what aides acknowledge is a high-risk, low-odds bid to achieve the next milestone of Middle East peace, President Clinton announced plans yesterday to convene a summit of Palestinian and Israeli leaders next week at the Camp David presidential retreat.
Clinton's summons of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the Maryland mountains is an effort to break an impasse that threatens to lead to renewed violence as time starts to run out on the negotiations.
Last night, new obstacles for a successful summit emerged, as two hard-line political parties in the Israeli government said they would withdraw from Barak's coalition in protest of his plans to travel to Camp David. If carried out, the defections would leave Barak with diminished authority to make the hard choices of peace.
Despite such challenges, U.S. officials insist that the time is right for intensive, cloistered negotiations between Barak and Arafat, with Clinton as mediator. In scheduling the talks for next week, U.S. officials were driven in part by the Sept. 13 deadline that both sides had set for reaching a final peace accord and by Clinton's desire to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace before his term runs out in January.
The Palestinians have threatened to declare independence unilaterally if a peace accord is not reached by the September deadline.
Lower-level officials "can take the talks no further," Clinton said. "Significant differences remain, and they involve the most complex and most sensitive of questions. Movement now depends on historic decisions that only the two leaders can make."
Clinton will try to forge a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians under circumstances that echo President Jimmy Carter's historic 1978 Camp David meeting with Israeli and Egyptian leaders that led to a peace treaty the next year.
But as Clinton conceded, the issues confronting Barak and Arafat are more numerous, more complex and probably more emotional than the land-for-peace deal engineered by Carter between Egypt's Anwar el Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin.
Arafat demands nothing less than Israel's recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a turnover of all West Bank land occupied by Israel in 1967, a national capital in Jerusalem and the right of return for millions of Palestinians displaced in the wars that followed Israel's birth in 1948.
Barak's demands are also high. He wants to retain substantial portions of the West Bank that have been developed by Jewish settlers, to retain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and to limit the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Further complicating matters are sharp differences over water rights, troop placements and prisoners.
"Behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lie the most profound questions about beliefs, political identity, collective fate," Clinton said. "There are no easy answers, and certainly no painless ones. And therefore, there is clearly no guarantee of success."
Barak's fragile political position poses further obstacles for success at Camp David. Key members of Barak's coalition government say he risks going too far in surrendering land and refugee rights to the Palestinians.
Yesterday, the Russian immigrant party headed by Interior Minister Natan Sharansky and the National Religious Party said they would withdraw from the government over their disagreement with Barak's acceptance of the Clinton invitation. Such political infighting, Israeli officials said, could hinder Barak's ability to grant sweeping concessions at Camp David.
"Prime Minister Barak comes to these talks with a willingness to take tough decisions to make this process work, but he's not operating in a vacuum," said an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If the Palestinians don't come to the table with a spirit of compromise and a willingness to be flexible, then this process is not going to succeed."
In some ways, the decision to hold a summit marks a significant reversal of course for the Americans. For months, U.S. officials have said that eventually, Barak and Arafat would probably need to sequester themselves with Clinton to hammer out the tough compromises that lower-level negotiators have been unable to achieve. But until very recently those officials had said that the time wasn't right, that the Palestinians and Israelis were too far apart on the issues to make a summit worthwhile.
Clinton administration officials conceded yesterday that the sides are as far apart as ever and that nothing has happened in recent days to raise the odds of success. But the White House has concluded that the risks of not holding a summit outweigh those of a failed attempt at peacemaking.
"The logic of stalemate was beginning to reflect the way the negotiators were dealing with each other," said a senior Clinton administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "On their own, they were beginning to produce more bitterness than results."
The calendar was another critical factor, given that Clinton will leave office in less than seven months and that the sides' self-imposed deadline for achieving a final peace is little more than two months away.
American participation and aid are essential to a permanent peace agreement, and administration officials are keenly aware that the later in Clinton's term the peace talks go, the lower the chances for success. A change in administration would presumably require a hiatus in the peace process.
At the same time, Arafat has vowed to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territory already under his control if there is no final accord by Sept. 13. Such a move would introduce new enmity and instability to the region, as demonstrated by Barak's dark warning yesterday that Israel would take "unilateral steps" of its own if Arafat proclaims a state.
Despite their differences, both sides have shown a true desire for peace, the senior Clinton administration official said.
"We also see potential," he said. "If we didn't see potential, we wouldn't be making this effort."
Clinton said he believes an agreement can be reached "in several days" at Camp David, where he would be present frequently but not constantly. The summit would have to end by July 21, when Clinton is due in Japan for a meeting of heads of the eight leading industrialized nations.
By meeting next week, Clinton, Barak and Arafat would give themselves time for a second session at Camp David - should one be needed - before the Sept. 13 deadline, Middle East experts said.
"The choice wasn't really between having a summit or not having a summit," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The choice was between having a summit now and having one closer to the deadline. Or between having one summit or two summits. They left themselves some leeway."
An Israeli-Palestinian meeting at Camp David would be the next step in a peace process that began in Madrid, Spain, and Oslo, Norway, in the early 1990s and continued through the land-for-peace agreement at Maryland's Wye River Plantation. In recent months lower-level negotiators have met in Washington and in Stockholm, Sweden.