'Camp Clinton' Unlikely to Provide Mideast Peace

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"Camp David" was once a code word for Mideast peace breakthroughs, and President Clinton may be hoping that its aura rubs off on Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak when he hosts a make-or-break summit there next week. But while the historic 1977 meeting between President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menahem Begin may have produced an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal that became the crowning achievement of the Carter administration, President Clinton's confab looks like little more than a last-minute Hail Mary pass.

Both Barak and Arafat are under pressure on the home front and have been forced to take tough positions in order to shore up their domestic support. Arafat over the weekend reiterated his intention to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state should a September 13 deadline pass without a final peace agreement. And Barak, just emerging from the near-collapse of his government coalition, again warned that Israel would retaliate by annexing land and suffocating the new state.

Though Arafat is in fact unlikely to follow through on his September deadline, Clinton has to be troubled by the fact that the ailing, 70-year-old Arafat has plainly become obsessed with his own legacy. Even more important than immediately delivering a Palestinian state is his desire to avoid being remembered as a traitor. In that frame of mind he presided last weekend over a PLO meeting that considerably narrowed his room for maneuver in negotiations, a session that underlined as non-negotiable demands for the return of all Palestinian areas occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem; the removal of all Israeli settlements from those territories, and the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel proper. Even though these positions are non-starters for Israel, Arafat's renewed enthusiasm for them reflects that his primary concern is to avoid being the leader who conceded so many articles of faith of Palestinian nationhood.

Cloaking himself in the nationalist mantle may also help Arafat sweeten the odor arising out of the recent release of his Palestinian Authority's report to its donors, which includes potentially damaging disclosures of development money rerouted into a slush fund, a $60 million stake in a West Bank casino project and $18 million in profits derived from its monopoly on cement. With so little of the billions pumped into the Palestinian territories over the past six years having found their way into infrastructure and job creation (despite the minting of a few Palestinian millionaires), it may be fair to question the economic viability of a state declared by Arafat's administration. But the Palestinians would hardly be the first nation for whom questions of good governance have taken second place to the quest for national rights.

So while Arafat and Barak will show up in Washington next week, neither will be in a mood to compromise at the urging of a lame duck American president. Which means the chances of Bill Clinton's presiding over a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement are increasingly remote. Instead, Arafat will probably declare his state sometime between the election and the inauguration, the Israelis will retaliate, and the next U.S. president will be called on to referee a new phase of their increasingly complex clash.