It's Damage-Control Time at Camp David

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Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat started their Camp David with a jocular scuffle to be last into the room with President Clinton; now they're jockeying to be the first to leave in a huff. After all, if you can't bring home a peace deal, then a little righteous indignation helps you look tough back home in the district. Leaks from the delegations suggest Arafat has twice gestured toward the door, ordering his aides to pack their bags on Saturday night and trying to phone U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan early Tuesday to tell him the talks had failed. Now, Israel radio reports Barak is planning to go home Wednesday evening with no deal. But while the others are threatening to leave, President Clinton has delayed his scheduled Wednesday departure for Tokyo by 24 hours — after all, he may have more to lose than either man if the talks fail.

Although negotiations are continuing, the parties look increasingly unlikely to achieve a comprehensive deal that concludes the peace process and caps President Clinton's foreign policy legacy. While the Palestinians can afford to leave the talks with incremental gains, all of Barak's offers are contingent — we give you most of the West Bank; you recognize Jerusalem as ours — and the Israeli leader can't afford to make any concessions now without a comprehensive agreement. For the White House, all that remains may be an exercise in damage control.

If anything, nine days at Camp David may have actually exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by forcing both sides to confront the extent of their differences despite six years of peacemaking. Whatever declaration of principles or vague agreement is adopted in the absence of a comprehensive deal, the talks have clearly delineated the issues that will drive the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none more so than the battle for Jerusalem. Both sides have made clear that they cannot live without their own vision of the Holy City — Israel insists on full control, the Palestinians want the eastern portion of the city that Israel captured from Jordan in 1967. Both sides were forced to dig in their heels at Camp David, which has narrowed prospects for a creative compromise that each could sell as a victory.

The art of brokering a peace deal — or even a face-saving declaration — is cultivating compromises that each side can market as the realization of the objectives for which it fought in the first place. But whatever is achieved in the emotional, pressure-cooker atmosphere of sequestered peace talks — which in their design induce claustrophobia and the very human desire to simply bring the nightmare to an end in the minds of negotiators from both sides — is inevitably subject to sharply conflicting interpretations once the negotiators return home. All of which suggests that President Clinton won't be able to claim ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of his legacy, for the simple reason that it won't have ended. Instead, the next occupant of the Oval Office will inevitably find himself umpiring a new, and probably more difficult, phase.