THURMONT -- President Clinton ended a grueling nine-day effort at Camp David last night, failing to broker an historic, permanent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Hours later, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced that they would stay at the mountain retreat and continue talks.
"We all thought it was over, and then we discovered that nobody wanted to give up," a weary Clinton said at 12:45 a.m. today. The president then prepared to leave quickly for a weekend economic summit in Japan.
While there was a profound feeling of missed opportunity for one of Clinton's chief foreign policy goals, he held out the possibility that progress on a peace accord could still be made in the coming days.
"The two parties have been making an intensive effort to resolve their differences over the most difficult issues," Clinton told reporters. "The gaps remain substantial, but there has been progress, and we must be al prepared to go the extra mile."
Upon returning from Japan, Clinton said, he "will assess the status of the talks."
Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright is expected to mediate the negotiations while Clinton attends the economic summit.
Barak and Arafat's decision to stay, rescuing the summit from a total collapse for now, ended a day of sharp reversals.
Late yesterday, all parties appeared to be exiting Camp David and heading into a feared cycle of violence on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said when the negotiations broke up shortly before 11 p.m.
By then, the Palestinians and Israelis, enemies for 52 years, had accused each other of failing to be flexible. The day had included the formal delivery of letters to Clinton by Barak and Arafat, presidential phone calls to Middle East leaders and an accusation by Barak that Arafat was "not a partner for peace."
But up to the time of Lockhart's 10:55 p.m. statement, the outcome was hanging in the balance as Clinton shuttled between Barak and Arafat to try to resolve fundamental differences.
"The priority of the president right now is to continue to work as hard as he can to make sure that every possible avenue toward an agreement is explored," Lockhart had said earlier in the evening, his voice quavering. "
Clinton had delayed his departure for the economic summit in Japan, but hopes that a last-ditch push would bridge the gaps quickly were dashed yesterday morning when Barak delivered a letter of regret to Clinton.
Barak implied that he was giving up on the talks, and Israeli journalists were told to prepare for departure yesterday afternoon.
In the letter, Barak accused Arafat of "not negotiating in good faith" for peace. The Palestinians, he said, "are not ready to take historic decisions. Unless there are last-minute developments, the Palestinians will have to witness the tragic results of missing a historical opportunity."
Around the time he received Barak's written missive, Clinton met with Arafat, then with Barak and then with the U.S. negotiating team that includes Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.
After making an afternoon phone call to Barak, Clinton stepped into Arafat's cabin about 5:15 p.m. for a climatic, five-hour attempt to push the parties into a deal.
Earlier, Arafat sent his own letter to Clinton. The contents were unavailable, but Lockhart characterized Arafat's letter as "different in nature, purpose and substance" from Barak's.
A peace agreement would probably have spurred protests by dissidents on both sides, but a peace breakdown will generate even greater strife and perhaps outright war, analysts of the region said.
"The choice is peace with limited violence or no peace with a lot more violence," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Arafat has promised to declare Palestinian independence after Sept. 13. Barak, in turn, has said he would retaliate by annexing pieces of the West Bank that he has considered handing over to the Palestinians.
While not a full-fledged army, the Palestinian security force is well armed enough to give the Israeli army a fight. In the Intifada Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, Israeli soldiers merely faced rock-throwing youths.
If the peace process breaks down, "this would not be another Intifada," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "You now have tens of thousands of Palestinian soldiers who are armed, and you would have firefights and essentially military skirmishes. Sooner or later this would come under control, I expect, after an awful lot of casualties."
In the Middle East yesterday, parties on both sides were blaming each other for the impasse in the talks, trying to prepare public opinion in advance of a total breakdown in negotiations.
"It seems that the Palestinian president is not able to reach a result that will allow the signing of an agreement," Ofir Pines, a ranking member of Barak's legislative coalition, told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, Freih Abu Meddein, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, blamed Barak, saying he was not operating in good faith at Camp David.
"Barak did not go to the summit to make peace. He went there to prove to his people that he could stick to Israeli red lines," Meddein told Reuters, referring to the limits beyond which Barak has repeatedly said he cannot go to try to make peace.
The primary sticking point in the negotiations, say people familiar with the talks, was the political status of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.
Barak calls Jerusalem the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel." Arafat wants Jerusalem divided, with Palestinians taking control of primarily Arabic neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The summiteers also tried to agree on borders for a potential Palestinian nation in the West Bank and Gaza, on Israel's desire for a security presence in the Jordan Valley and on the future of 3.7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
Amid yesterday's talks, Clinton called four leaders in the Middle East "to give them a sense of where we are in this process and discussed the need for support from leaders like them," Lockhart said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who spoke on the phone Tuesday to one of Arafat's senior aides, yesterday called on the Camp David delegates to display flexibility in the final hours.
"What I will say is to urge all parties to really focus on the issues as we get down to the wire in a spirit of give and take and make the kind of compromises that are necessary to get compromise, so that we can move on," Annan said.
Last night's ending was the climax of a exhausting diplomatic marathon.
Starting on Sunday, Clinton met separately with Barak and Arafat for hours, sometimes until nearly dawn, shuttling between the two and consulting top U.S. advisers between powwows. Barak consumed much of the president's time early in the week, including at least four separate meetings on Monday and Tuesday, one of which ended at 4:30 a.m.
But on Tuesday, Arafat seemed to attract more of Clinton's attention as the weary summiteers sought a breakthrough on Jerusalem and cultivated the impression that deadlines were reaching the breaking point.
Clinton huddled with Arafat twice on Tuesday, squeezing in an evening session with Barak and resuming with Arafat late yesterday morning after he received Barak's letter.