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Prospect of failure kept leaders at Camp David

The late revival of the summit suggests that Barak and Arafat reached the same decision at the same time.

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


THURMONT, Md. -- It was just before midnight Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base as Hassan Abdel Rahman paced back and forth, waiting for the motorcade carrying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. His arrival would signal the final collapse of Middle East peace talks at Camp David.

On the asphalt runway apron outside the terminal, Arafat's pilots supervised the fueling of his Challenger executive jet and ran through their checklists as luggage was loaded on board. Then Rahman, who represents the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington, got a call on his cell phone. Tell the pilots to go back to their hotel, one of Arafat's security men told him. The chairman is staying.

Thus did Rahman learn of the remarkable, Lazarus-like resurrection of peace talks that barely an hour earlier had been officially pronounced dead by no less an authority than the White House itself. With Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak both having decided earlier in the evening to abandon the 9-day-old summit, President Clinton had persuaded the two adversaries to step back from the brink and continue their make-or-break negotiations with a promise to rejoin them at Camp David upon his return from Japan on Sunday or Monday.

The last-minute rescue does not portend a breakthrough in talks that by all accounts have been extraordinarily tense and difficult. But a reconstruction of the last hours before Clinton's pre-dawn departure for a G-8 economic summit on Okinawa does suggests that both Barak and Arafat, having peered into the abyss of a failed summit, reached essentially the same conclusion at essentially the same time -- that the price of failure was too great. Officials on all sides seized on that Thursday as a glimmer of hope for the days ahead.

At Camp David on Thursday morning, the mood was described by government spokesmen as somewhat more relaxed than it has been in recent days, as U.S. negotiators led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- who will oversee the talks in Clinton's absence -- caught up on their sleep or chortled over newspaper headlines announcing that the summit had failed.

There were no illusions, however, about the challenges that lie ahead. Explaining the decision to continue the summit, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters early Thursday morning that "there is nothing that's happened . . . that would make us believe that they are closer to resolving their differences."

Meanwhile, with neither Israel nor the Palestinians expecting any serious bargaining until Clinton rejoins the summit, officials from both sides Thursday reiterated their accusations of intransigence.

The last-minute rescue came after grueling negotiations aimed at producing a final settlement of all the major issues -- the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees -- at the core of the 52-year Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

According to Palestinian and Israeli officials in contact with their 12-member delegations, the talks have in recent days foundered on the question of Jerusalem. Palestinians demand that Israel grant them a sovereign capital in East Jerusalem. Israel, which captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, insists that the city remain undivided.

On Wednesday morning, Barak's frustration with Palestinian demands became public when Israeli officials defied the news blackout and released a letter he wrote to Clinton accusing Arafat of "not carrying out negotiations in good faith." While there was certainly an element of gamesmanship in Barak's letter, Israeli officials gave every indication of planning to leave.

Inside Camp David, meanwhile, another drama was unfolding. Clinton had already delayed his departure to Japan by one day and made clear to the two delegations that he had no intention of further postponing the trip, according to Lockhart.

Twice during the day, Clinton called Jordan's King Abdullah to enlist his help in persuading Arafat and Barak to stay, according to Reuters. Clinton also spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite his best efforts, however, Clinton appeared to be making little headway. About 10:30 p.m., Lockhart told reporters, "the president made the judgment that it was time to leave, that we would be leaving . . . without an agreement and he would travel to Japan." Twenty minutes later, Lockhart issued a terse statement informing the world that "the summit has come to a conclusion without reaching agreement."

Inside the forested retreat, "We had motorcades, we had bags, we had everything," Boucher said.

Then, less than an hour after the White House statement, Barak and Arafat communicated their change of heart to U.S. mediators.

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