THURMONT -- Before he left for Japan yesterday, President Clinton pushed negotiators at Camp David closer than ever before to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, narrowing the gaps on Israeli security desires and on the borders of a potential Palestinian nation, diplomats said.
But delegates were unable to bridge differences on the sensitive matter of Jerusalem, leading to a total breakdown in the talks before they were pulled from the edge in a surprising reversal early yesterday.
Brinkmanship is routine in Middle East politics, where no offer is final until the plane lifts off and where diplomatic valises bulge with unused fallback positions.
But in the grueling peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians this week, the brink has turned into a moving target.
When delegates at Camp David changed their minds Wednesday night and decided to continue meeting without Clinton, it was the second time in as many days that an immovable deadline was moved.
Early yesterday, Clinton astonished the world -- or at least the part that was awake -- by announcing that the previously canceled talks were back in session.
Only an hour after presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters "the summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to extend the negotiations while Clinton visits Japan for an economic summit.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has taken charge of the bargaining, which is expected to simmer until the president returns Sunday or Monday. At that time, Clinton said yesterday, "I will assess the status of the talks."
Nobody here believes that an extra three or four days will significantly boost the chances for a peace agreement.
The choice for additional time might have grown out of fear for the consequences of failed talks as much as hope for success, diplomats said.
The decision by Arafat and Barak to extend the negotiations "was eminently sensible," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser during the first Camp David talks, between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
"And it also means that ... to go back with nothing is a personal defeat for each of them and for both of them at the same time," Brzezinski said.
"I'm still hopeful. I think they're going to hammer something out."
Squeezing every drop
But if a deal is eventually reached, the show of stress, grief and excruciation that preceded Wednesday's broken deadline will help Barak and Arafat sell it to their peoples, diplomatic analysts said.
"They need to demonstrate to the folks back home that they squeezed every drop possible from the other side," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum.
White House and State Department spokesmen, the official spokesmen for the 10-day-old peace talks, disclosed few details of Wednesday's crisis.
But interviews with people close to the summit shed additional light.
They show that extending the sessions was a U.S. idea, that talks will be idling until Clinton returns, and that all three delegations were preparing to leave Camp David before the announcement of "failure" was abruptly changed to "still trying."
Meetings early and late
Wednesday started for Clinton about 9 a.m. in a meeting with Albright, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger and other U.S. negotiators.
They consulted for about an hour on the previous night's meetings with Barak and then Arafat, which lasted until after midnight.
The talks were stuck, and had been for a few days.
In nearly nonstop bargaining since Saturday, the delegates had made progress on some of the difficult issues dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians, diplomatic officials said, especially Israel's security concerns and the borders of a potential Palestinian nation.
Holy city is issue
Arafat had agreed to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and Barak had indicated a willingness to turn over more than 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.
Jerusalem was the problem.
The ancient city, site of some of the holiest spots in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis as their capital.
Arafat wants Palestinian control of Islamic shrines and Arabic quarters in the eastern part of the city. Israel, which has held East Jerusalem since the Six Day War in 1967, has offered to expand the city, giving Arafat at least a piece of a newly defined Jerusalem.
But by Wednesday morning, the Palestinian leader still wanted more than Israel was proffering, and an exhausted Clinton spent most of the day shuttling between the two equally tired Middle East leaders in an attempt to span the breach.
The talks were already running into overtime.
Tuesday night, Lockhart had made a great show of giving his final news briefing, thanking the town of Thurmont for providing the press center and telling reporters, "This may be the last time I come up here."
Clinton's gambit of using his scheduled Tuesday departure for Japan to push Arafat and Barak into a deal didn't work.
Late Tuesday, the president gave in and delayed his exit for Japan by 24 hours.
Middle East diplomacy illustrates the aphorism that, if not for the last minute, nothing would get done.
The problem is figuring out which minute is the last. Wednesday afternoon, the last minute looked to be approaching quickly.
One deadline already was blown, and Clinton obviously needed to leave for the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Japan, which began today.
Clinton spent the day at Camp David shuttling between the two Middle East leaders.
At one point he called Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and other Arabic leaders to try to get them to press Arafat to be flexible.
But accord proved elusive, and by 9 p.m. or so the delegates faced the prospect of failure.
All three delegations had their bags packed. The Israelis had loaded Barak's Boeing 707 with $7,000 worth of kosher food for the trip back to Jerusalem.
After the flight was canceled, the food was donated to a battered-women's shelter in Washington.
"We were really prepared to go," an Israeli diplomat said. "It wasn't just talk."
Price of failure
"This was real," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the decision to scrub the talks. "At that point, that seemed the inevitable conclusion that we had to reach."
At some point between 11 p.m. and midnight, however, something changed. The Americans had been talking all day of continuing to hold negotiations after Clinton left.
The delegations had been discussing it among themselves, and the idea seemed better and better after the summit participants started to ponder the price of failure.
As midnight approached, Clinton asked both Arafat and Barak to stay. They agreed.
"After all these years, as hard as these issues are, they don't want to give up," a haggard, puffy-faced president told reporters early yesterday.
"And I didn't think we should give up."
Not one but two missed deadlines, and the decision to soldier on without the president, might set Camp David II apart from other diplomatic negotiations.
History of crises
But crises -- real and stage-managed -- are part of Middle East politics.
At the Wye River negotiations with the Palestinians in 1998, the Israelis packed their bags and threatened to leave at one point, then relented.
The Sinai II disengagement talks between Egypt and Israel collapsed in 1975, only to be revived with a deal a few months later.
The Oslo II talks between Israel and the Palestinians lasted more than three nearly sleepless weeks.
"I did not find yesterday's events to be particularly surprising," said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and a political consultant to Arafat.
"Historically, if you look at this, this is more in keeping with the norm than not."
Yesterday, a State Department spokesman said that Barak, Arafat, Albright and their delegations "will continue to try to close the gaps and move forward with the issues."
"Discussions will continue, in the president's absence," he said, "on the issues here."
Until the next crisis, that is.