When it comes to Mideast peace, the words "last chance" have relative meaning. But the collapse of high expectations that surrounded the summit of President Clinton and Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad in Geneva on Sunday - billed by both sides as a "last chance" effort to jump-start Syrian-Israeli peace talks - may in fact prove to be a critical setback.
The Syrian side thought that Mr. Clinton was bringing a "magic key" of compromise from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while the Americans apparently thought Mr. Assad would adjust his demand to get back "every inch" of occupied land.
Instead Syria renewed its insistence that Israel first agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before it will consider security guarantees demanded by Israel.
After three hours of face-to-face talks, gaps were still so wide that White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said "we don't believe it would be productive" for Syria-Israel talks to resume now, and that it was "impossible to predict" when it would be.
"Do you think the Americans did not know that that would be the Syrian position?" asked a Syrian analyst who asked not to be named. "Everyone in Syria expected Clinton to have a magic key in his pocket, and Syria was looking for an opportunity to have a breakthrough. This time, unfortunately, the Americans played it wrong."
The outcome in Geneva was so unsettling that the US and Syrian delegations reportedly exchanged allegations about who had initiated the meeting - and who had promised results - in the first place.
Ephraim Sneh, Israeli deputy defense minister, accused Syria of "dictating an agreement."
"They are quite intransigent about what they are supposed to give in terms of security arrangements," Mr. Sneh told the Associated Press.
Assad's spokesman blamed Israel for "still putting ... obstacles" in the way of peace. Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa told Beirut's As-Safir newspaper that "we were surprised to see that the US president did not bring anything new from Israel."
A sense of urgency overshadowed the summit, because time is running out for all sides. Clinton is eager to crown his presidency with a comprehensive Mideast peace, though the upcoming US election will increasingly tie his hands.
For Syria, Israel's vow to withdraw its troops by July from southern Lebanon - where Syria calls the shots, and pressures Israel by supporting Lebanese guerrillas fighting that occupation - could deprive Damascus of its main card.
And for Mr. Barak, who was elected in a landslide last May on a peace ticket, support for any peace deal with Syria - and especially a hand back of the Golan - is ebbing. Israeli analysts have even begun to wonder aloud if peace with Syria is necessary anymore, considering the weakening state of Syria's military and the frustrations of peace efforts so far.
The contours of a deal are well known. Analysts say that most Israelis recognize that the price for peace with Arab stalwart Syria - after half a century of conflict that deepened with the capture of the Golan and other Arab territories by Israel in the 1967 war - is returning most or all of the Golan.
Unlike the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, which are a string of deep territorial and legal compromises, Syria's "every inch" policy has not changed in a generation.
A precedent was set in 1979, when Israel and Egypt agreed at Camp David to exchange all of the occupied Sinai for peace.
Syria demands a return to the borders as they were on June 4, 1967, which would give it control of the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee - one of Israel's chief sources of water. Israel demands sovereign control over at least a narrow strip of that shore and all water rights - even if international troops are stationed in between.
Direct US-brokered talks in West Virginia were suspended in January, and foundered on the same bedrock issue.
A draft treaty created by the US for consideration by both delegations during the US talks was leaked to the Israeli press, and embarrassed Syria by showing that it had already begun to negotiate security guarantees before getting an iron-clad commitment from Israel to return all occupied land.
Despite a flurry of bitter rhetoric from both sides, some of that mistrust was eased in late February, when Barak told his cabinet for the first time that previous prime ministers had agreed to fully withdraw from the Golan - a point Syria had been asserting for years, but which the US and Israel had never confirmed.
A face-saving compromise has proven hard to come by. But both sides have solid reasons for making peace soon, so the loci of new progress seemed to be falling into place on Sunday.
The US president's Geneva stopover after his Asia trip, and Assad's decision to make a rare trip from Damascus to meet him, raised expectations that a way to resume talks would be found.
A Syrian observer at the Geneva talks says that the fact that two key senior generals were included on the Syrian team - including the one who would demarcate new borders - was a sign that the Syrians were serious and "expected some maps to be on the table."
Though Clinton once spoke about Assad's "legendary stamina," after a four-hour and 20-minute session in 1994, hints that the president would stay overnight in Geneva if necessary to continue discussions Monday were nixed early.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Clinton had told her before the summit that "the distance between them is short, but the walk is hard."
Getting in the way of the walk will almost certainly be the Lebanon pullout, if it occurs. Israel's occupation since 1978 of a "buffer zone" in southern Lebanon has resulted in scores of Israeli troop casualties, and increasing public pressure in Israel to get out.
Israeli strategists have long feared that Hizbullah guerrillas will carry their resistance across the border into northern Israel, if Israel pulls out unilaterally - an outcome that Syria could help prevent if a peace deal were signed.
The latest setback means that "both sides could feel that things have to deteriorate before they go back to the table again," says the Syrian analyst.
The Lebanon withdrawal "will either be the trigger, or the decisive entry point to a new phase of negotiations," he adds.
"The Israelis are calling Syria's bluff by saying 'We will pull out, let's see if you can use that card.' It's going to be a hot and dangerous summer," the Syrian analyst adds.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society