AS the Middle East's political leaders inch toward a lasting peace in their region, some 12-to-14-year-olds in the Maine woods have made strides of their own toward that goal.
One of them, Laif, a Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem, grimly recites the history of his region - the progressive incorporation, since 1948, of what had been Palestine into what is now Israel. But he also sees the possibility of attaining through peace what was never gained through war: a homeland for his people.
Laif's solemn words seem a little out of keeping with an idyllic setting on the shore of Maine's Pleasant Lake. Camp Powhatan presents the classic picture of summer fun - swimming, boating, playing fields, and rustic cabins. For the last two summers, however, the final weeks of August - before the camp shuts down for the season - have been devoted to a singular experiment in international relations. Arab kids and Israeli kids are flown to the United States and bused up here for a chance to get to know each other, an opportunity they'd never have back home.
WE find a peaceful atmosphere in this place,'' says Laif, and communication and occasionally even true friendship happens. Laif is in his second year at Camp Powhatan, as is Yehoyada, an Israeli boy who breaks from a game of tennis to talk about his friendship with Laif.
At first, he says, ``We fought a lot, but because we fought, we became friends.'' The kind of fighting they did was verbal, and heated exchanges of words are not uncommon here. It's all part of understanding someone else's point of view, says Yehoyada.
He and Laif kept their friendship alive during the year since they met in Maine. They spent hours on the phone after the massacre of Muslim worshippers by an Israeli settler in Hebron, and more hours after Palestinian reprisals took Jewish lives. They rode horses together near Jerusalem and drove with Laif's father through Jericho.
``For me, it was the first time to see a Palestinian as a person and not as an enemy,'' says Yehoyada.
Together with other friends from camp, they sent letters to both PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asking them not to let the incidents imperil peace talks.
The two boys' relationship epitomizes the camp's purpose, says John Wallach, foreign editor for Hearst newspapers, author of many books on the Middle East, and founder of the Seeds of Peace organization that sponsors the camp, which was started up last year.
``People don't realize that when leaders sign an agreement, that doesn't really change anything,'' he says. ``This kind of work to prepare the people is crucial.''
The work can be anything but smooth. Mr. Wallach recalls the ``very hard time'' he had convincing Israeli officials that young teenagers should be allowed to make the trip to Maine. Apart from safety concerns, he says, officials objected that the kids were ``politically immature.'' ``That's just why I wanted them,'' Wallach says with a laugh. Finally, approval was granted, and this year more than 1,000 Israeli youngsters applied for the 40 openings at the camp.
It wasn't easy on the Palestinian side either. Rula Halawani, a Palestinian photographer and journalist, was recruited by Wallach to organize the Palestinian camp delegation. She was determined to open the opportunity to all kids from Gaza or the West Bank, but was under considerable pressure from Palestinian officials to favor certain children, often their own. She stuck to her democratic principles.
In addition to Palestinian and Israeli youngsters, the 119 campers this year - more than double the number last year - include Egyptians, Moroccans, and Jordanians. The Jordanians were a last-minute addition in the wake of the Israel-Jordan peace breakthrough. The Israeli campers also includes Israeli-Arab and Druse children.
Athletics, crafts, talent shows, and even a computer workshop provide chances for teamwork and creativity. But the heart of the camp experience, Wallach says, is nightly ``coexistence'' sessions at which issues that arise among the kids - often sharply political ones - are discussed.
A staff of 10 adult ``facilitators'' is on hand to help guide the group discussions. Complaints and painful memories, like the deaths or imprisonment of relatives, surface on all sides.
Sometimes simmering feelings burst forth outside these sessions. Three days into this year's camp, the Palestinian kids donned T-shirts with a map of Israel and the word ``Palestine'' blazoned over it. Reactions were sharp, and the facilitators and other adults - staff, plus the Arab and Israeli escorts who traveled with the kids - sprang into action. Feelings were soothed and everyone agreed not to wear clothes with politically charged messages.
Wallach says the T-shirt battle may have been joined earlier when some of the Israeli kids wore shirts with their national colors and a star of David - a symbol Palestinians associate with the Israeli Army's occupying forces.
Given that blowup over symbols, it's remarkable to walk into Powhatan's crafts room and find a Palestinian girl, Rehaf, and an Israeli boy, Boaz, working together on a peace poster that sets an amalgam of three flags - Israeli, Palestinian, and American - into a flaming sun. ``It's the rising sun,'' says Boaz, explaining it as a symbol of hope.
Outside, three girls, arms around each other, amble toward a cabin with a piano inside. Liav and Aya, Israelis, wrote, and Ghita, a Morroccan, set to music a theme song for Seeds of Peace. Its final line: ``We're kids from the Middle East, We made war and then made PEACE.''
MOST of the kids who spend two weeks together at Camp Powhatan -
plus a preparatory week in the Boston area. Last Friday, a group of more than 100 youngsters in the program met with President Clinton in Washington.
Through their peacemaking work, the kids make contact across a divide that seemed unbridgeable, and they sometimes see friendships teeter after bumping into deep-set political beliefs.
But the point is less to get the youngsters to relinquish their own beliefs than to start understanding those of others, says Farhad Agbaria, an Israeli-Arab who serves as a facilitator. ``It's a drop here and a drop there, but it will become an ocean,'' he says of the program's impact.
``I've met parents who have changed their attitudes thanks to their kids,'' says Mr. Agbaria. These children could have just such a ripple effect through their societies.