It is hard to exaggerate the risks involved in the Middle East summit that began this week at the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. The main players — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton — are gambling that the stakes will force each other to make a deal that has been long-delayed, and deliberately so. There is no guarantee that any agreement can be reached, or that once done, it will stick. As Mr. Clinton noted before the talks began, “If this were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.” But it was not done, and in the 22 years since the first Camp David accord was struck, the positions seemed to have sharpened and the gaps have not been closed.
History weighs heavily on Mr. Clinton. He desperately wants a secure peace in the Middle East to be part of his legacy. He sees inspiration in the deal brokered by his predecessor, Mr. Jimmy Carter, who brought then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Camp David and produced the unthinkable: a peace deal between their two countries. This week, the two teams will be locked in for “as long as it takes” to reach a peace deal. The summit is scheduled to go for at least one week, but could go on for two. It forced U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to withdraw from this week’s meeting of G8 foreign ministers; Mr. Clinton has hinted that he is ready to skip the G8 leaders’ summit next week if so required.
The first Camp David agreement will be hanging over all these sessions, as Mr. David Hirst explains in his article on this page. That accord left key issues for the future. They include: the fate of the 170,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the 3.6 million U.N.-registered Palestinian refugees who want to return to their homeland, the final status of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, and the final shape of any Palestinian state. Twenty-two years ago, the chief negotiators assumed that fleshing out the Camp David framework would build confidence between Middle Easterners. That was not happened.
Indeed, there are doubts whether Mr. Barak or Mr. Arafat can deliver on whatever promises they make in the days ahead. Both men have been weakened domestically. Mr. Barak lost six ministers and three parties in his coalition government in the last week, because they feared he would make territorial concessions they could not support. His own foreign minister is boycotting the summit. The government did not lose a no-confidence motion in the Parliament, but it failed only because rules require a majority of 61 votes; the government was beaten 52-54, but several members abstained.
Mr. Arafat is similarly exposed. He is trusted by only 30 percent of Palestinians. Many others fear that their leader, like Mr. Sadat, will compromise on baseline principles that have guided Palestinian negotiations: the establishment of a Palestinian state composed of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, the naming of East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state and the right of return for all Palestinians.
Any compromises on those issues will be judged harshly. Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group that poses the biggest challenge to Mr. Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian movement, has said that any territorial concessions would be “null and void” and that it would not be bound by any such agreement.
Thus the lines are drawn. Mr. Barak has ruled out a right of return for Palestinians. He prefers compensation payments instead. Mr. Arafat wants Israel to return all the land seized in 1967. His case is strengthened by Israel’s willingness to give Jordan and Egypt all the land they lost in that war. Mr. Barak has said that he is willing to return almost 90 percent of the land, but it would be stitched with Israeli-controlled roads and settlements. There is no middle ground on the thorny question of Jerusalem.
Out of such intractable situations, true leadership emerges. Mr. Barak has said that he wants a real peace, and he believes the Israeli people do, too. That is why he constructed the broad coalition that virtually disintegrated in the past week. But the prime minister has repeatedly claimed that his mandate comes from the people, not the Parliament. Any deal will be put to the country in a referendum, and he will quickly learn whether he is correct.
The particulars may be elusive, but the bottom line is simple. Palestinians want the dignity, equality and respect that comes with their own state. Israelis want security. If both leaders can deliver on those things, then they will have won the peace.
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