For Mideast, summit is the lesser gamble

Declaration of Palestinian state may spark violence without an agreement.

Call it the math of the Mideast.

In inviting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Camp David next week, President Clinton has calculated that the risks of a summit that fails - as this one distinctly could - are less than the risks of no summit at all. Therefore, the high-wire act is on, even though, as Mr. Clinton gravely warns, "there is clearly no guarantee of success."

Experts tend to agree with this political arithmetic. In fact, some even suggest that the gamble of going ahead is not as great as the administration makes it out to be. Lowering expectations, as all sides are doing, is a classic diplomatic strategy, and many analysts believe the leaders will come away with a partial agreement for signing at the White House this fall.

"The risks are not as great anymore, because everyone realizes they can only have a partial agreement," says Abraham Sofaer, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Indeed, reaching agreement on all the outstanding issues, as the Clinton administration insists it aims to do, strikes many as virtually impossible. That would mean resolving such major issues as the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of thousands of Palestinian refugees, as well as Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza.

But the costs of not taking this step, Clinton says, will be more bloodshed - with both sides confronting the same problems later.

The violence could be sparked by the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, a step which leader Yasser Arafat says he will take if there is no conclusive agreement reached with Israel. In turn, Israel is threatening its own unilateral action. Analysts see this hardening heading into a downward spiral.

But there is no doubt that a shock-therapy summit would carry its own risks. Most presidential summits are carefully choreographed, with leaders gathering for a handshake and photo-op after signing a deal worked out by subordinates.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has already found out what happens when leaders don't have built-in support in advance: Two parties in his shaky coalition government are quitting after it became clear he would attend the summit.

Clinton was embarrassed by a summitry break-down in April, when the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad refused his overtures for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal. The refusal essentially froze the peace process begun in Shepherdstown, W.Va., last winter.

Administration officials and analysts point out there is a precedent for this kind of high-stakes gathering - the 1978 Camp David accords, which ushered in peace between Israel and Egypt under the guiding hand of President Jimmy Carter.

It also began with both sides at an impasse, and Clinton said he hoped the historic presidential retreat in the Maryland hills would inspire the participants. But the history of Middle East peace negotiations is more one of incrementalism than dramatic summits.

"You make marginal progress at every occasion. You do not make dramatic progress suddenly," says Sofaer.

In this case, the White House is putting great stock in the three leaders themselves. Just as Richard Nixon, a Republican, was the only one who could open the door to communist China, so Mr. Arafat, with his revolutionary credentials, is seen as the only one who can make peace with Israel.

Mr. Barak, for his part, seems to believe it is his destiny to forge peace, and while his public support has plummeted, he was originally elected with a mandate for peace. Meanwhile, Clinton, after seven years of working on the Palestinian-Israeli problem, has the trust and understanding of the other two leaders.

Surprisingly, his lame-duck status may play to his advantage. Both Barak and Arafat see this president as their last chance, since a new president will be too distracted with setting up his government to focus on the Mideast.

But what if the talks collapse? Who's at risk then?

While much is made of Clinton's need to burnish his legacy, if he fails, "he's in no worse a position than before," says Bernard Reich, a Mideast expert at George Washington University here.

For Arafat, it could be a bit of a wash, too, adds Mr. Reich. If there is no agreement, he will declare a state, and if there is an agreement, he will have a state - though presumably a more peaceful and lasting one.

Barak's status is more complex. His support from the public and the government is already low as he heads into these talks, so there may not be much hue and cry if he fails. And with the two government officials exiting, he'll have no majority and is already in a precarious position.

Which leaves the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves as perhaps the ones at greatest risk, since failure to move forward could portend a return to a pattern of terrorism and protest.

Still, by not meeting at all, many analysts argue the leaders would be resigning their nations to this fate anyway.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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