Summit narrowed gap before talks broke down


WASHINGTON - According to every account of the recently suspended Camp David peace talks, Israel and the Palestinians have never been closer to ending their half-century of enmity than they were about 1 a.m. Tuesday.

Both sides, but especially Israel, had made unprecedented concessions on the sensitive issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the borders of a potential Palestinian state.

When talks broke down two hours later, the gap between the negotiators seemed to change back into a canyon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak immediately repudiated all his offers to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, publicly calling them "null and void."

But hardly anybody is taking Barak at his word.

While foreign policy analysts agree that the suspension of negotiations Tuesday is a serious and perhaps long-term setback to the peace process, many believe the lull might prove only temporary.

"Clearly they want another chance. Both do," said Shibley Telhami, holder of the Anwar Sadat chair of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

"Their incentive to go back [to the table] is very high. When they look at their options, the alternatives remain not very good."

Middle East specialists said plenty of time remains before Sept. 13, after which Arafat has promised to declare Palestinian independence if no agreement with Israel is in sight.

A scheduled recess by the Israeli parliament from early August through late October could give Barak the political respite he needs to make a deal.

President Clinton has six more months in office, enough time, perhaps, to pull off a last-minute Middle East peace triumph.

"Nobody's closing the door," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum. "Both Barak and Arafat have to go back and talk to their people and their various constituencies and shore up support for coming back - if there's a chance to do so."

It is customary to put a positive spin on failed negotiations, and the leaders at Camp David had extra incentive to do so.

On both the Palestinian and Israeli home fronts, extremists had threatened violence if the talks didn't go their way.

But the comments coming from all three sides since the negotiations broke up seem to have gone beyond the normal damage control.

"This demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israelis and Palestinians have moved the full discussion of permanent status to a new level," said a senior State Department official who was at Camp David.

"I wish I could convince you somehow that this is not just an effort to put a very good face on a very grim situation," said the official. "Based on my experience, and what I watched happen ... these were in some respect revolutionary developments."

Saeb Erekat, one of Arafat's senior aides at the talks, went even further.

"The prospect for achieving an agreement after the Camp David summit is much more viable than any time in the last right years," he told reporters Tuesday. "One day you will write the foundations of peace ... were laid at the Camp David summit."

Even Barak's comments weren't as downbeat as they could have been. He pointedly said that Arafat "hesitated" to move toward peace, instead of saying "failed."

Analysts chalked up Barak's "null and void" comment as a nod toward conservatives at home, where the prime minister's coalition government has crumbled and he has faced harsh criticism for making concessions to Arafat.

Although no deal was struck, many Middle East specialists believe that the summit's airing of sensitive topics such as the political future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees has cleared the way for future progress.

"The talks ended. They didn't collapse," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Nobody should expect that these historic, existential issues could be resolved in only two weeks."

The idea of ceding parts of Jerusalem to Palestinians might be unthinkable to Israelis, and the idea of taking financial payments instead of land for refugees might be unthinkable for the Palestinians.

But, notes Smerling, Israel is negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization. At one point, that was unthinkable, too.

None of this is to say that everybody is optimistic. Or that political pressures in the Middle East can't explode and halt the peace process.

Chances to recreate the possibilities of Camp David are "not too good," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. "I think this is a one-time offer" by the Israelis. "I don't think it's going to happen again."

For one thing, Barak could lose his premiership or his leeway to make concessions. Key members of his governing coalition resigned before he left for Camp David, and he faces a vote of no-confidence next week.

If Barak's government falls and the conservative Likud bloc makes gains, even if it doesn't gain the premiership, the peace process would suffer.

Another risk comes in the form of radicals in Arafat's camp.

The extremist Hamas wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization favors a violent solution to the PLO's differences with Israel, and "the wild card in this picture is whether Hamas carries out something," said Telhami.

Violence by Hamas, he said, "could throw everything into a mess."

Key to the chances for new negotiations will be Arafat's - and Clinton's - consultations with Arab leaders in coming days. Arafat won't make any compromises with Israel unless he's backed up by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other powers, analysts said.

Whether leaders of those countries are supportive will depend to some extent on supplications and arm twisting from Clinton.

At Camp David, "it was unmistakably clear that the decision making process was not Arafat's alone," the senior State Department official said.

The germ of the collapse of talks at Camp David, and perhaps the key to a way out of the impasse, is Jerusalem. The talks hung in the balance early Monday morning, waiting for a response from Arafat to a new, sweetened proposal by Clinton for ceding parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian control.

Negotiations stopped shortly afterward when Arafat refused.

It is the lack of any political support for a Palestinian consensus on Jerusalem that Pipes believes lowers the chances for a peace deal anytime soon.

"There's a very strong consensus that there shouldn't be concession on this point," he said. "It's all his constituency, saying in a loud voice, 'Don't go near this thing.'"

But the Mideast leaders were more optimistic, at least in public.

Speaking in Gaza on his return, Arafat told supporters, "As President Clinton said yesterday, it is possible to go back one more time next month to Washington or to any other place he himself chooses."

A few hours later, in Israel, Barak said: "I promise not to despair, not to tire, not to stop pursuing peace."

Wire services contributed to this report.

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