Why a Camp David Deal May Be a Bridge Too Far

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Day 7 and not a deal in sight. And that may be as much a relief for the U.S. Congress as it could be for both Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak. The hints and murmurs emanating out of Camp David suggest there's unlikely to be a peace agreement before President Clinton's scheduled departure for Tokyo Wednesday, and with the two sides notoriously unable to make any progress without him in the room, the White House may now be weighing whether there's any point in leaving them to talk among themselves. "More time will not make their decisions any easier," an unnamed senior U.S. official told CNN Sunday. Indeed, they've been talking for years without achieving agreement on the core issues, and both Israelis and Palestinians went to Camp David skeptical about the prospects for a breakthrough. For both Arafat and Barak, it's a lot safer to return home without a deal than carrying one their constituents might view as a betrayal.

Jerusalem may be the most intractable issue of all: Barak is under mounting pressure at home to avoid returning an inch of the Holy City to Arab sovereignty, while Arafat will be branded a sellout if he settles for anything less than Palestinian control over that part of the city they call Al Quds captured by Israel in 1967. Both sides' recalcitrance is driven by the religious passions at the very heart of their national identities — passions which militate against seeing the other side's point of view, which, after all, is the very essence of negotiation.

Slow progress at Camp David may be just fine with the fiscal-discipline crowd on Capitol Hill. Notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to spending taxpayers' money abroad, some Republican legislators were apoplectic at the weekend when the Washington Post reported that both Israel and the Palestinians are expecting the U.S. to pick up the tab for peace, which could run well over $15 billion. That bill would cover the cost of redeploying and re-equipping the Israeli military to cope with new, substantially more vulnerable borders, as well as the cost of Israel's compensation to Palestinian refugees for property seized in 1948. Needless to say, even if an agreement is reached at Camp David this week, it remains to be seen whether Congress would allow President Clinton to keep his end of the deal.

Camp David's Culture Gap

TIME's West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad on why agreement remains so elusive:

"I personally doubt very much that there will be an agreement at Camp David. At most, they might agree on a declaration of principles, with no fixed timetable, which will mean very little on a practical level. Both sides, right now, are incapable of reaching an agreement — especially on Jerusalem.

This is something the Americans don't seem to understand. There's a real culture gap between the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinians simply don't understand the Israelis. They see them either as all-powerful and able to do anything, or otherwise as easily defeated. There's no objective, realistic approach to Israel. For example, when Barak has problems with parties leaving his coalition, they see it either as a plot or as a sign that Barak counts for nothing. They don't understand the political culture of Israel, of a democracy. Of course they're going to disagree with Israel's positions on Jerusalem, for example, but they haven't made it their business to try and understand why Barak can't make any compromises on Jerusalem.

And the Israelis' understanding of Palestinians is still stuck in a kind of 19th-century "Lawrence of Arabia" mold. They look down on them. And just as the Palestinians don't understand Israel's attachment to Jerusalem, nor do the Israelis and Americans understand why Arafat cannot give up Jerusalem. The Americans think of it simply as property, or land. They haven't grasped what Jerusalem means in the minds and hearts of Palestinians — as Arabs and Muslims it represents something extremely powerful. In the same way, the Palestinians have failed to understand the emotional significance of the city for Jews, and why Barak can't move an inch on Jerusalem. And this is the basic problem. There's very little mutual understanding among the parties at the talks — they talk past one another. "