Yasser Arafat had ordered his Challenger executive jet revved up to take him home. Ehud Barak told aides to begin drafting a statement he would deliver by himself to give his spin on why the summit had collapsed. Bill Clinton was mulling some type of communiqué to be issued by the three men that would try to put the best face on a diplomatic disaster.
But at the 11th hour last week, the Palestinian leader and Israeli prime minister decided to remain at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, to see if they could reach an agreement that ended their 52-year-old conflict. An exhausted Bill Clinton flew to Okinawa early Thursday morning to keep his date with the G-8 economic summit, leaving Secretary of State Madeleine Albright behind to see if she could keep the two sides inching closer to an agreement until he returned this coming week.
The two weeks of almost nonstop negotiations at Camp David have been grueling for Clinton, Arafat and Barak. For nine days, Clinton cajoled and pleaded with the two leaders. But progress had been so slow that he was ready to give up and fly to Okinawa, where he was already late for the G-8 summit. For seven months, Albright and her Mideast team had been shuttling to the region to persuade the two sides to move closer on the three critical issues that would have to be settled at a summit: the borders of a new Palestinian state, the number of Palestinian refugees who would be allowed to return, and who would have sovereignty over Jerusalem. In between those tortuous negotiations were constant squabbles over the transfers of Israeli occupied territory in the West Bank that Arafat had been promised two years earlier.
But at Camp David, the hang-up boiled down to Jerusalem. Arafat demanded that the Palestinians have sovereignty over East Jerusalem, but Barak was willing to give him no more than authority over municipal services in that section of the city with Israel retaining overall sovereignty. The two sides also hadn't settled on the new borders and the return of Palestinian refugees, but the negotiators believed those gaps could be bridged once they decided the fate of Jerusalem. But neither man was budging; the talks had hit a brick wall.
Barak and Arafat, who had been frosty with each other in their dealings the past seven months, had each begun complaining to Clinton that the other man wasn't negotiating seriously. Both had threatened at different times to walk out. At one point last Wednesday afternoon, Barak aides told the Israeli reporters traveling with him to be ready to take off in his plane by 8 p.m. Frustrated, Clinton decided to pack up too and signaled to both men that he wasn't bluffing. By 10 p.m. Wednesday, he had his motorcade assembled outside his Camp David cabin to take him to Air Force One for the flight to Okinawa. He also had one of his spokesmen announce that "the summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement." That jolted Arafat and Barak, who within an hour told Clinton they wanted to stay at Camp David with Albright and continue. "Nobody wanted to give up," a bleary-eyed Clinton told reporters before he boarded his jet early Thursday morning. Albright plowed on at Camp David, testing new ideas with the two men on how to resolve the Jerusalem sovereignty dispute. But whether Arafat and Barak wanted to sign an agreement when Clinton returned remained to be seen.