Beginning Oct. 15, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat and will face each other behind the secluded gates of Wye Plantation for four intense days - more time than the Israeli and Palestinian foes have ever spent together - and may emerge with the most significant progress toward peace in almost two years of stalemate.
But the pressure they will face at the marathon summit in Maryland is likely to be mild compared with what they will face back home if they succeed in hammering out an agreement. In order to reach an accord on an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and implement it - not necessarily the same thing - Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Arafat will face potentially nasty showdowns with their own hard-liners.
In effect, there is no way for them to win at Wye and not make waves at home. Arafat will have to disable Islamic militants in order to meet Israeli demands for security. And Netanyahu will have to wrangle with Jewish settlers who threaten to topple his government if he turns over West Bank land that they want as their own.
The deal-in-the-works is beginning to seem more like a prenuptial agreement than a peace accord.
The two parties, who don't quite trust each other enough to tie the knot, have a long list of preconditions that the other side must fulfill before any concessions are made.
Netanyahu's aides say that they have outlined 50 steps that the Palestinians must take while Israel carries out the troop withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank, to take place in three stages over three months. These include arresting Hamas activists, collecting illegal arms, and extraditing wanted Palestinian extremists to Israel. Palestinians say they want the whole withdrawal in one shot, plus a freeze in settlement growth and a prisoner release, among other things.
Netanyahu's strategy for damage control with the right wing hinges partially on his appointment, officially approved Oct. 13, of former Gen. Ariel Sharon as foreign minister. Though Mr. Sharon's name has never been associated with peacemaking, he is well-respected by the ultranationalists Netanyahu is seeking to placate as he hands over more territory to Palestinian control.
Sharon has a terrible reputation with Palestinians and others throughout the Arab world - not to mention many Israelis - for leading Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and leading a drive to build new settlements in the occupied territories a decade later.
Sharon showed a pragmatic side when Israeli and Egyptian leaders worked out the Camp David Accords 20 years ago, after which he organized the evacuation of the Jewish settlement on the Sinai Peninsula. But after an Israeli commission of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phlangist militiamen during the Lebanese civil war, most thought Sharon's diplomatic days were over.
Sharon liked by hawks
Sharon's popularity proved resilient, however, with secular hawks in Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, as well as with religious settlers who see him as their best bet for keeping a hold of as much of "greater Israel" as possible.
Netanyahu has been holding the foreign ministry post, which has been vacant since January, just in time to fill it before the Wye summit.
The fact that Netanyahu appointed Sharon, despite the palpable rivalry that has developed between the two, has been widely read as a signal that Netanyahu is now prepared to make a deal. Sharon, he hopes, will be his flak jacket from the attack that already has started from the settlers, who planned a mass demonstration outside his office Oct. 13.
"If Netanyahu, who doesn't like Sharon, invites him to be foreign minister, perhaps it means he made up his mind to go along with this withdrawal," says Arye Naor, who served as Cabinet secretary when Sharon first joined the Cabinet in the late 1970s under Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Netanyahu isn't relying solely on Sharon to pacify hard-liners. There has been much speculation, as yet unconfirmed, that he will appoint Rehavam Zeevi, who heads the far-right Moledet (Homeland) party, to Sharon's old post as head of the National Infrastructure Ministry. Netanyahu met for two hours Oct. 11 with Mr. Zeevi, who has been such a harsh critic of any Israeli peace plan with Arab neighbors that he has been sarcastically nicknamed "Gandhi."
In addition, Netanyahu has sought to assure settlers in the past week by making moves out-of-step with the resumption of peace talks: He went to the West Bank settlement of Ariel during the visit of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and declared the village of 15,000 a city - a designation its residents have been demanding as a symbol of their permanence on the Israeli map. And he gave permission to controversial Jewish settlers in Hebron to replace their mobile homes with permanent structures.
Arafat's master plan is less clear. Israeli and American officials are demanding that he make life difficult for members of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, by arresting their activists and shuttering the offices of all their institutions. But such a crackdown is unpopular with most Palestinians, who feel that they've received nothing from the Israelis to warrant turning more of their own people into prisoners.
Hamas expects raids
Hamas members say that they expect Arafat to launch a large spurt of raids once a deal on a redeployment is reached.
"The [Palestinian Authority] PA is going to arrest many people in the Islamic movement because the Israelis and the American are pushing them to do it," says Sheikh Abed el Khalef el Natsche, the spokesman for Hamas in Hebron.
"When Albright came, we paid the price for her visit with 10 arrests," he says.
"Arafat has agreed to get 13 percent, but he has to pay a tax for this, which is arresting Hamas people. The result will be awful. I'm afraid that one day there will be a very strong reaction from the people against the Authority because of this."
A 'gentlemen's agreement'
PA officials say there won't be any move against Islamic militants for the time being.
"Nobody can speak about that until we come back from Wye," says Ahmed Qorei, a Palestinian negotiator and the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "[Hamas] is a part of the people, and they will be dealt with as part under the rule of law."
Others suggest that Arafat will be reluctant to make arrests, but he may have other plans in mind. As in the past, he could try to broker an unofficial "gentlemen's agreement" with Hamas that they won't launch any attacks in Israel for the time being. But what he would offer them in return remains to be seen.
"He's not going to arrest anyone, and this is not a political statement," says Ziad Abu-Amr, an expert on Hamas at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
"I don't see any crackdown coming on Hamas, unless there's a major bombing to warrant it," he says. "Many people reject the 13 percent and the summit....
"Do you expect Arafat to put everyone who rejects the agreement in jail? If he comes back with a good agreement, maybe he'll gain more support for it, and that will be his answer to the rejectionists."