THURMONT -- The Camp David peace talks headed into overtime early this morning, as negotiators toiled past midnight and President Clinton delayed a trip to Japan to try to nail down the lingering, painful details of a possible peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Clinton had been due to leave this morning for the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Japan. As late as 10 p.m. yesterday, the White House was portraying his departure scheduled for 9:50 a.m. today as an unmovable deadline in an effort to push the Palestinians and Israelis into accord.
But as tense, almost nonstop meetings continued last night among Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, it became increasingly clear that no deal would be reached by morning and that the president would postpone his takeoff to continue the talks.
Early today, administration officials announced the expected -- that Clinton would leave for Japan tomorrow instead of this morning and devote an extra 24 hours to the high-pressure talks.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had given an indication earlier yesterday that the talks would be extended when she decided to cancel a planned trip to London to give a speech to the American Bar Association.
Clinton's mood was "determined" last night, and in recent days he has also experienced "moments where you see promise but also moments where you see frustration," presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said. The negotiators, he added, "understand what they're up against. We'll have to wait and see."
By several accounts, the main topic of the intense haggling yesterday was Jerusalem, which both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim as their capital.
Clinton faces the Solomonic task of dividing the ancient city while letting each side claim that it retains its rights to the whole.
Nobody took the negotiators' failure to reach an agreement by last night as a definitive sign of failure. Few Middle East diplomatic accords are achieved in their allotted time.
"Every thousand-mile trek ends with one step, eventually it has to stop somewhere," Avraham Burg, speaker of the Israeli parliament, told the Associated Press in Jerusalem. "In Israel, usually the best solutions come at the last moment. With the Palestinian side they're coming sometimes even after the last moment."
Whether the summit ends today, tomorrow or later, there was a sense last night that the talks had entered their most critical phase and were close to a resolution -- for better or worse.
Asked about a potential treaty-signing ceremony in Washington, Lockhart said, "There doesn't need to be much preparing. I'm confident that the team at the White House can, on a moment's notice, put something together."
Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and about three dozen senior negotiators have been at Camp David since July 11.
They are trying to solve complex problems that have kept Israelis and Palestinians shedding each other's blood for years, including the political future of Jerusalem, the potential borders of aPalestinian state and the fate of about 3 1/2 million Palestinian refugees.
In a grueling schedule that started after the Jewish Sabbath ended Saturday evening, Clinton has spent much of his time with Barak, apparently pressing him for concessions.
Clinton met with Barak twice before dinner Monday and huddled with him again until after 4 a.m. yesterday. While Clinton was meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Arafat had a session with Albright and White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.
Clinton met with Arafat once yesterday, after both got some rest.
Clinton has become the primary medium of communication between the Middle East leaders. Arafat and Barak have talked formally only once at Camp David outside the presence of Americans, and that was almost a week ago.
According to news reports from the Middle East and sources in the United States familiar with the talks, the Camp David negotiations hung yesterday on Jerusalem, which contains shrines sacred to Islam, Judaism and Christianity and is widely deemed the most difficult issue in the peace process.
Both Barak and Arafat claim as their capital Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
Israeli officials have tried to get Arafat to accept a compromise in which Palestinians would obtain a significant claim on the city but Barak would be able to say he hadn't backed off from the oft-repeated claim that Jerusalem is the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel."
One key to that trick is fudging the boundaries and changing the definition of Jerusalem. Barak wants to expand the borders of municipal Jerusalem to include Jewish suburbs on the West Bank, simultaneously enveloping Palestinian communities to give more of Arafat's people a Jerusalem address.
"When you begin to change the borders of Jerusalem to accommodate Jewish settlements ... it could positively affect Palestinian interests," said an Israeli official who briefed reporters at the start of the talks. "We may find ourselves doing some very innovative things," such as considering "gray areas" in governance and joint, "condominium" control with the Palestinians.
Many foreign policy analysts see an accord on Jerusalem as the main negotiating obstacle to a Palestinian nation.
Israeli officials have indicated that they are prepared to deliver some 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control, an offer Arafat would presumably accept if he could get satisfaction on the ancient city.
"If they can find an agreement for Jerusalem, then there's no reason they can't declare a Palestinian state," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But finding an agreement on Jerusalem involves far more than changing the city's boundaries. The 1-square-kilometer piece of ground inside the ancient city walls is held sacred by both sides.
Within that is an even more cherished tract: the area known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram al-Sharif, which is the former site of the ancient Israelites' temple and the present site of the Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Arafat has warned that any peace deal will require Palestinian control over Al Aqsa, at the least.
"Arafat will not be the leader who goes down in history as giving up East Jerusalem," said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who is a political adviser to the Palestinian Authority.
"Arafat's done this so many times," Abington said of the brinkmanship at Camp David. "He's a guy that plays a weak hand better than anybody else."