It All Comes Down to a Verbal 'Understanding'

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You wouldn't buy a house with this flimsy a deal. But Bill Clinton hopes it will be enough to get the Palestinians and Israelis to stop fighting. After 28 hours on the ground in Sharm el-Sheik — 24 of them spent in a total of two dozen meetings — the President emerged shortly before 2 p.m. local time Tuesday to announce that Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had reached a series of understandings with him on the three objectives Washington had set out for this hurry-up summit.

First, both sides agreed "to issue public statements unequivocally calling for an end to the violence," Clinton said. Second, the U.S. would put together a fact-finding committee to investigate what started the violence. And third, Barak and Arafat agreed to send their negotiators back to Washington in the next two weeks to restart peace talks.

But "understandings" is the catchword here. Barak and Arafat reached these understandings individually with Clinton. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders never came to a deal together, sitting across the table from one another, looking eyeball to eyeball. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tried to get them to do just that two weeks ago and to sign a piece of paper spelling out what the understandings were — and the move failed. No papers were signed at Sharm el-Sheik. Clinton's top aides believe that the understandings, all given verbally, are specific enough that Barak and Arafat know clearly what they now have to do. But the understanding leaves the two sides enough of a loophole to drive a tank through — or, in Arafat's case, as many stone throwers as he wants.

"What is important now is what happens on the ground," said a senior U.S. diplomat. That's certainly not comforting, because what's been happening on the ground is that belligerents on both sides defy these understandings within days of their being reached. In other words, the accord reached at Sharm could be a stone's throw away from being broken.