BEIRUT — It will be something less than a miracle if U.S. President Bill Clinton does achieve the high purpose he has set himself in summoning Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Camp David: an end to conflict between Arab and Jew in Palestine. After all, it won’t be the first of its kind. When U.S. President Jimmy Carter brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together in November 1978, he did so in conditions of high risk and low expectations — just like those that prevail today.

It will be “less” than a miracle because the same circumstances, the weakness and desperation of one of the protagonists, that rescued Camp David I from disaster may well do the same for Camp David II. Today, this is Arafat’s predicament; in 1978, it was Sadat’s. It took 13 days of tantrums, threatened walkouts and the resignation of his foreign minister, but in the end he caved in.

Sadat went to Camp David proclaiming his undying loyalty to the orthodoxy of the time: Egypt would never make a “separate peace,” and never abandon its Arab, and above all, its Palestinian brethren. Any deal he reached would serve the larger, “comprehensive” peace to which all the others could eventually adhere. But he did abandon them and that was the capitulation.

He fiercely denied it at the time, and brandished in his defense the so-called Framework for Peace in the Middle East that accompanied the peace treaty proper. This provided for “autonomy” for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But not only was this “autonomy” a purely Israeli concept, it never even came into effect because no obligation was imposed on Israel under the treaty to ensure that it ever would. The truth is that with this false promise, Camp David I pioneered the one indispensable stratagem that has sustained the “peace process” to this day: the deferral of the most intractable issues to the end.

On the face of things, the difficulties of Camp David I pale before those of its successor. The protagonists really are face to face with the consequences of the stratagem in which they all connived, face to face with those fundamental, so-called final-status issues that the earlier breakthroughs — from Camp David itself to the Madrid Conference of 1991 to the Oslo agreement of 1993 and its many sequels — systematically, pusillanimously pushed into the indefinite future.

Barak’s difficulties are far greater than Begin’s were. Begin did not have to yield a sliver of what, in terms of Zionist ideology and history, ranked as the inalienable, God-given Land of Israel or what is indispensable for the defense of the state. But Barak will have to yield a good portion of it. And while Begin had a firm grip on power and an assured majority in Parliament, Barak is close to losing his altogether.

But the real, surpassing dilemma is Arafat’s. What he will be called upon to do dwarfs, in its enormity, that to which Sadat acquiesced. His official goal is a Palestine state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In terms of the Palestinian national struggle, let alone his own career as “revolutionary” and “liberator,” it is a very modest aim indeed: The West Bank and Gaza constitute a mere 23 percent of the historic Palestine which Palestinians deem rightfully theirs. Arafat has doggedly preserved the fallacy that even this modest aim is an attainable one.

And fallacy it surely is, for the deferment stratagem that kept the peace process in existence was always deferment at his — never the Israelis’ — expense. The “interim” solutions that, under Oslo, were supposed to advance his conception of “final status” instead only advanced the Israelis’ conception of it. Obeying the logic of “take what you can now and leave the rest until later,” he acquiesced in cumulative concessions that widened the gap between what he was achieving and what he assured his people he would achieve by this method in the end. With Camp David II, the fallacy is about to be brutally and definitively exposed.

Even if he gets his state, and all-important U.S. recognition of it, it will be a mockery of what it is supposed to be: without real sovereignty, without East Jerusalem as its capital, without the return of the refugees, without most of the territory on which Israeli settlements have arisen. Above all, its very birth will be conditional — conditional upon on his solemn termination of the Palestinian struggle, the renunciation, in his people’s name, of all the historic rights and claims that the struggle embodied.

That, at bottom, is what, for the Israelis, Camp David II is all about. That is the basic, existential gain — the completion of Camp David I — which they expect from it. It is the last service that Arafat — with all the authority and prestige of the legendary freedom fighter turned elder statesman and despot — can perform for them. As the newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi put it, “they want Arafat to play the part of the male bee which fertilizes the queen — and then dies.”

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