Clinton Takes Long Shot For Peace President Puts U.S. Prestige On Line As Middle East Summit Opens Today

If today’s crucial summit involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Ararat ends in failure, it may be easy to tell. Success, however, will be harder to recognize.

The two sides come to Washington with dramatically different public positions about how to defuse the violence that has left 73 people dead during the bloodiest week since the historic 1993 Israeli-Palestinian treaty.

Netanyahu wants to return to the negotiating table and talk about a new agreement. Arafat says fine - but, in the meantime, carry out the existing one.

Even President Clinton confronts some peril by investing U.S. prestige only five weeks before a national election in an undertaking with no guarantee of success.

But administration officials said the danger of inaction is greater than that of trying and possibly failing to restart the frozen Middle East peace talks.

A senior State Department official said: “There was a real risk that if we didn’t do something dramatic, the whole fabric (of the peace process) would have unraveled. There is a recognition on the part of all those who are coming that the risks of the present situation were so great that they overshadowed all other considerations.”

It remains unclear whether, even with Clinton’s coaxing, the two Middle Eastern leaders can conjure up any agreement to resolve their bitter differences. Common diplomatic language may be beyond their grasp at a time when the Israeli government has been striking an increasingly hard-line stance, much to the chagrin of American officials.

The summit was imperiled for a time Monday when Arafat briefly balked at coming without receiving certain assurances, including the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

After several hours of confused reports from around the Middle East, the White House announced that Arafat would attend but without Mubarak, who is still reportedly angry about Israel’s decision to open an archaeological tunnel as a tourist site near holy places inside old walled Jerusalem.

The tunnel fanned the flames of anger and frustration on the Palestinian side with Netanyahu’s slow pace of peace-making - and provided the spark for last week’s unprecedented bloodshed.

But by Monday, all sides appeared to agree that the issue of the tunnel was not key to resolving what Secretary of State Warren Christopher called “a state of crisis” besieging the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Palestinians, Israelis and Americans said the heart of the issue was Arafat’s inability to get Netanyahu to move forward on agreements outlined in the Oslo accords - notably Israeli army withdrawal from posts in the biblical city of Hebron, home to 100,000 Arabs and 400 Jewish settlers.

On the eve of the summit, Israeli sources predicted that Netanyahu would bow to demands to accelerate talks - provided they first stepped back, reassessed and strengthened existing security arrangements between Palestinian police and the Israeli Defense Forces that until last week’s bloodshed shared joint patrols in Palestinian-administered land.

“He will give the mechanism, the readiness to accelerate negotiations …” according to an Israeli diplomat who spoke on condition he not be named. “He’s willing to withdraw from Hebron, I think, immediately after the Jewish holidays - if he has the security modification to sell to his constituents.”

Jewish Israel is celebrating the weeklong harvest holiday of Sukkot. No specifics were immediately available on what modifications and the timetable for Hebron withdrawal Netanyahu sought.

The mood of this summit is dramatically different from those Clinton hosted in the past between Arafat and Israeli leaders. This time, instead of an agreement to press forward with a joint vision of Palestinian self-rule that ignores key obstacles, all three major players are joined by Jordan’s King Hussein for talks with starkly different objectives.

Netanyahu, who upset incumbent Labor leader Shimon Peres in June after a strong security-focused campaign, wants to renegotiate public safety questions outlined in the Oslo agreements signed by slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Rather than set aside the sticky questions surrounding the future of Jewish settlements in the territories and the fate of Jerusalem, he has said they are simply not negotiable.

Arafat, meantime, has been isolated and adrift since Netanyahu’s election.

He wants to press forward with some of the old Labor Party assumptions that everything from Jerusalem to the possibility of a future independent Palestine was still on the table.

And Clinton wants to find enough common ground to stop the blood-shed, get the negotiations back on track and salvage Middle East peacemaking as a major foreign policy achievement.

“Clinton at a minimum would like the problem to get off the front page so he can get back on. Flare-ups in the Middle East are not good news, whether they’re in the Persian Gulf or in the Arab-Israeli arena,” said William Quandt, who served on the National Security Council during the Nixon and Carter years and helped orchestrate the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

Given Netanyahu’s hard-line stance, Quandt said, “We’re not on the verge of a breakthrough here, to put it mildly.”

Graphic: Arab-Israeli summit (time line)

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