Arafat, Barak Head for a Chilly Desert Summit

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The Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh nestles at the foot of the Sinai desert, where daytime temperatures rarely drop below the 70s. But that may change Monday when the town hosts what may turn out to be the Middle East's frostiest ever peace summit. The object of the meeting is to get Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak to call a truce in the violence in the West Bank and Gaza that has killed more than 100 people in the past three weeks, most of them Palestinian. But simply getting them talking in measured tones may take all the diplomatic skill the mediators — President Clinton, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah — can muster, and then some.

Summitry among adversaries is essentially a game of symbols. It requires that leaders publicly embrace a rapprochement, so as to signal their followers to turn away from conflict. And therein lies the problem of the Sharm El Sheikh meeting: the protagonists, and even the mediators, may have mutually exclusive symbolic requirements of the event.

President Clinton may be playing a leading role, but Israeli-Palestinian peace is no longer entirely his show. After Secretary of State Albright's failed attempt in Paris 11 days ago to broker a cease-fire and the subsequent escalation of hostilities, it's unlikely that the U.S. acting alone could have gotten Arafat to attend another summit just now. On the Palestinian street, as in Arab capitals more widely, little if any distinction is made between the U.S. and Israel in the outpouring of rage occasioned by the recent violence. And that makes Arafat reluctant to return to a negotiating table where Washington's mediation isn't counterbalanced with Arab influence.

Arafat's presence in Sharm El Sheikh is more likely to be the result of arm-twisting by the moderate Arab regimes, who have a clear and urgent interest in tamping down a conflict whose wider impact may be spinning out of control. The terror bombings, hijackings and kidnappings of recent days have announced a growing presence on the playing field of groups such as the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, who would like nothing more than to reverse 21 years of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Indeed, growing signs amid the turmoil that his own authority may be in danger of being eclipsed by that of the Hezbollah-allied Hamas movement may by this point give Arafat reasons of his own to douse fires he was happy to stoke three weeks ago.

Still, that doesn't mean either the Palestinian leader or the Arab cohosts entirely share Washington's agenda, much less Barak's. While the U.S. hopes the summit will produce a timeline for the resumption of the "final-status" peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, its Arab cohosts believe that may be premature in the wake of the rage produced by the recent violence, and that a simple agreement to disengage from violence may be the best that can be hoped for right now. Not surprisingly, there have been reported disagreements over the agenda on the summit's eve. Nonetheless, having committed to a meeting with Clinton and Barak, Mubarak has an additional incentive to keep the Palestinians from storming out — the cost of failure for the Egyptian leader would be to weaken his position against the more radical voices of Iraq and Libya when the Arab League gathers in Cairo next Saturday.

Mubarak and King Abdullah may be at peace with Israel, but each leader faces mounting pressure from his own people, whose outrage at Israeli actions over the past three weeks is grist to the mill for both countries' popular Islamist opposition, which resolutely opposes peace with the Jewish state. While that gives the Egyptians and Jordanians plenty of incentive to help put a lid on the Israeli-Palestinian violence, each one's domestic situation may also lead them to require from the summit some form of symbolic rebuke of Israel — or that Barak assume at least partial responsibility for the recent violence. And Arafat needs that more than anyone, given that a growing majority of his own people are more skeptical than ever not only of the value of talking with Israel, but even in many cases of Arafat's leadership itself.

Barak's requirements, needless to say, are diametrically opposed. The violence of the last three weeks has left growing numbers of Israelis deeply distrustful of Arafat and of his value as a peace partner, and Barak has even voiced these sentiments himself. With his coalition government in danger of collapse when the Israeli parliament reconvenes, talking and acting tough on the Palestinians may be the key to his political survival. That means that Barak needs to be seen to be conceding nothing, and to be symbolically rebuking Arafat — and, if need be, to show Israelis that not even Uncle Sam can make him stay at the table if he doesn't like what transpires there.

It's no wonder that all parties are casting a pall over expectations, in light of the various parties' adverse expectations of the talks. Each side, after all, blames the other for the violence, and while they can agree to various cease-fires and security arrangements in behind-the-scenes contacts, retreating publicly from a hostile posture carries a political cost for both Arafat and Barak. That suggests a chilly summit, and if all parties are still in the room by the time it ends, that in itself could be considered an achievement.