How Clinton's Mideast Peace Strategy Came Unstuck

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Maybe U.S. diplomacy never had a prayer of succeeding in the first place. Maybe the Israelis and the Palestinians just weren't ready for peace yet; their hard-liners still had too much hate and killing left in them. Even then, it's clear now that President Clinton's game plan for getting Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to sign a final peace treaty contained serious flaws.

From the outset, Washington paid too much attention to Barak's operating style and not enough to Arafat's. The Camp David summit Clinton hastily convened last July was ideal for the Israeli prime minister — a hands-on manager who delegates little to his diplomats, Barak had convinced Clinton that the only way he and Arafat could reach a treaty was to isolate the two of them in a secluded spot where political enemies and the press couldn't "salami-slice" the concessions they'd have to make.

But Camp David couldn't have been a worse setting for Arafat. He prefers to let a loose circle of advisers negotiate details, and then sign off on them only after many rounds of consultations with other Arab leaders and consensus-building among his own people. "Taking the Palestinians to Camp David and cutting them off from the way they usually make decisions bewildered them and made it more difficult for them to decide," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

American diplomats worried privately before Camp David that Arafat hadn't prepared his people adequately for the tough choices he'd have to make. But they failed to grasp why he hadn't done so: Arafat arrived at the presidential retreat already having made far more concessions than Palestinians on the streets were ready to accept. "Clinton assumed that Arafat didn't have firmly felt positions, that his problems could be papered over," says Edward Abbington, a former State Department diplomat who now advises the Palestinians.

When he couldn't close the gap after 15 days, Clinton called it quits and publicly chastised Arafat for not being as bold as Barak during the summit. The President's reaction was designed to prop up Barak, whose governing coalition was crumbing back home. "But the U.S. committed a very serious mistake by pointing fingers at the Palestinian side," insists Hasan Abdul Rahman, the PLO's Washington representative.

After Camp David's collapse, some suggest Clinton should have followed the playbook of marriage counselors who advise couples never to go to bed without settling an argument. The summit had ripped the scab off the most sensitive subject dividing the two sides, and they had begun discussing compromises. "Once you put them on the table, you have to go full speed to reach an agreement," says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, the administration took a breather for two months and tried in vain to enlist Arab leaders in pressuring Arafat to compromise. The intermission gave time for Arafat to brood, for the Palestinian streets to come to a boil, and for hard-liners to move in.

Clinton's diplomatic team adamantly defends its strategy. "Those people who think that the peace process doesn't work or is flawed or is the problem, I think they're dead wrong," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells TIME. But should the U.S. now step aside and let another broker try his hand at negotiating a peace, say U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan or the European Union? The Palestinians would like to internationalize future negotiations, believing they would get a better hearing from other middlemen, but Israel deeply distrusts the U.N. or European intermediaries. "We are the only country that can actually get something done," insists Albright. "It isn't we that are seeking the central role. They come to us."

For now, however, Clinton is pleading with the two sides to come to him. He has invited Arafat and Barak to the White House for separate meetings. He wants to get the peace talks restarted. What about a final peace treaty? The next president will likely have to grapple with that.