A historical agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would have settled the thorniest issues of a half-century-long conflict was almost signed at Camp David last month. Now President Clinton, the mediator and miracle worker of Middle East peace talks, is running out of White House time. Ehud Barak, Israel's pro-peace prime minister, deserted by coalition partners left and right, is hanging onto power by his cuticles. Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has promised to create a sovereign Palestinian state on Sept. 13 if negotiations prove fruitless.
The peace process is at a critical juncture. Unless something happens fast, a window of opportunity is about to slam shut, unleashing violent energies that will recall the intifada days, the days of stones, blood and anger that preceded the march toward reconciliation begun in Oslo, Norway, in 1993.
If no agreement is reached in coming weeks, a new poll shows, 60 percent of Palestinians are likely to support violent confrontations and emulation of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Islamic guerrillas whose roadside bombs and suicide attacks forced Israel out of southern Lebanon in May.
Saber rattling can be heard in the Israeli camp too: Twenty-seven percent of Israelis support harsh retaliatory measures if a Palestinian state is declared unilaterally in September. The Israeli army is on standby, with helicopters and tanks, to intervene if residents of the West Bank and Gaza get out of hand.
Or so goes the hype.
Contrarians believe that the status quo is actually much safer than any unpopular agreements. The concessions Barak was willing to make at Camp David included handing over to the Palestinians certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem and giving back 90 percent of the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. Those two far-reaching provisions would have earned him the fury of right-wingers and the disapproval of many average Israelis. Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister who first had the guts to shake Arafat's hand, was shot dead five years ago by Yigal Amir, a Jewish settler, for far less than what Barak almost did at Camp David.
The fear of provoking a popular uproar also influenced Arafat's decision to reject Barak's offerings. The Palestinian leader said repeatedly at Camp David that he was not willing to risk being assassinated by a fellow Arab for being overaccommodating. By not altering a single item on the Palestinian shopping list, Arafat returned from the United States empty-handed -- but to a hero's welcome.
In the view of some Israelis, Arafat exposed his true intentions by refusing what was handed to him "on a silver platter." For Yossi Klein-Halevi, a right-of-center Israeli journalist, Arafat's maximalist attitude shows that the peace process as the Palestinians understand it is "one big bluff. It's not about peace or reconciliation. It's about pushing Israel back."
If that's the case, the failure of the Camp David summit was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Palestinians and Israelis can now return to their no-peace, no-war modus vivendi, in which 120,000 Palestinians work daily in Israel, Israelis shop in Arab stores during the Jewish Sabbath, settlers in the West Bank and Gaza live in relatively secure fenced-in fortified towns and Jerusalem is, in effect, shared by Arabs and Jews.
From the Palestinian point of view, no agreement is also "good news," said Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst at a Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem -- but for different reasons. "An agreement would mean Palestinian concessions," he said.
Palestinians feel they should settle for nothing less than full implementation of the United Nations security resolutions that enshrine their rights under international law. In order to reach an agreement, Palestinians have already made what they call a "historical compromise": They have waived their claim to all of Palestine and limited their demands to the land defined by 1967 borders -- which represents only 22 percent of the land known as Palestine before the creation of the Jewish state. In other words, they accept the existence of Israel. "The problem now is that the Israelis are trying to get the Palestinians to compromise on the compromise," said Khatib, who believes that a final, comprehensive agreement between the two sides at this stage is impossible.
But in the August heat, the sense of burning urgency is hard to shake. Like a terrifying summer blockbuster, the black-and-white, war-or-peace feeling in Israel has received plenty of high-level endorsements.
"I see this as the moment of truth for the country," said Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who just last week lost his bid for the Israeli presidency in a surprise setback. "The next 90 days will determine our destiny," he said.
Much of the nail-biting suspense hinges on whether Barak will pull through the political storm that has rocked his government since he headed for peace talks at Camp David. Barak, who barely survived a no-confidence vote last week, has three short months of parliamentary recess to assemble a new coalition and strike a deal with the Palestinians.
Talking to his dispirited party troops, who now represent a minority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, Barak tried to inject a note of heroism in the daunting weeks ahead: "We are climbing a steep hill. Whoever can't do it should step aside."
Many have already chosen to step aside and leave the commando mission to Barak, Israel's most-decorated soldier. Foreign Minister David Levy, known for his keen sense of where the wind is blowing, resigned Aug. 2, joining 13 of the 22 Cabinet members who have deserted Barak so far.
Levy's exit followed Peres' humiliating defeat. The Knesset turned down Peres, a veteran politician and passionate advocate of regional peace, and chose instead Moshe Katsav, an amiable but lightweight opposition member -- in large part because Peres was Barak's man in the race. "Any other candidate backed by Barak would have lost," commented Gideon Levy, a columnist with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
If Barak is to save his own neck now, most observers think he will have to extract a last-minute agreement from Arafat. Barak, who was elected in a landslide last year on a pro-peace platform, would then submit a peace deal to the Israeli public and bypass the opposition of the unruly, splintered Knesset by calling for new elections.
"If Barak comes up with a deal, people will have no choice but to vote in favor of peace," said Zeev Chafets, an Israeli columnist for the Jerusalem Report. "Barak would handily get reelected," he said. The right-wing hawkish parties in the Knesset may have a 10-seat advantage on the doves. And an armed group of hardcore settlers may be ready to ignite a civil war rather than give up their homes in the occupied territories. But an overwhelming majority of Israelis support finding a diplomatic solution to the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The likelihood that Arafat will abandon his intransigent stance in the next few weeks, however, is none too high. The final step towards lasting peace seems tragically impossible to make given Barak's political weakness and Arafat's unwillingness to compromise on key issues, such as Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the right of refugees to return to their homeland.
Since the failure of the Camp David summit, diplomats -- some of whom have invested years of cajoling and creative thinking into bringing Israeli and Palestinian positions closer -- paint a gloomy picture of the road ahead. The interim agreement that has been governing the relations between Israel and the Palestinians will expire on Sept. 13. After that, "things may become very chaotic," warned Khatib.
But the future may not necessarily be so bleak.
First, diplomatic failure does not inevitably spell the end for Barak. If he abandons the idea of reaching a new agreement with the Palestinians, he will be free to invite members of the hawkish opposition into his government. Then he would no longer have to rely on the debilitating and capricious support of ultra-Orthodox religious parties. That's just what some of Barak's overwhelmingly secular constituency is looking forward to: a secular left-right unity government that will address domestic issues neglected during Barak's first year in power.
Second, Israel's international standing is not likely to suffer too much from a lack of diplomatic progress over the next few weeks. At Camp David, Barak already boosted Israel's image by winning an "A" for effort from Clinton. Clinton's announcement on Israeli television two weeks ago that he is considering moving the U.S. Embassy to West Jerusalem -- thereby recognizing for the first time the city as Israel's legitimate capital -- was greeted with cheers by Israelis, who see it as a precious diplomatic gain. (A Western diplomat argued in private that the announcement was in fact "Clinton's last gift to his wife, Hillary," since Hillary Clinton is actively courting the Jewish vote in the New York Senate race.)
So if the Palestinians resort to violence, the international credit Barak earned at Camp David for trying to reach a deal could come in handy. "He tested the other side and will have proven to all but the most fanatic left-wingers that there's no deal. He will be the guy who tried to get a deal but couldn't," said Klein-Halevy. "If there's a war [against Palestinians], it's good for parents to know that their kids are fighting in a war that the other side is responsible for," he said.
During the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that raged between 1987 and 1993, the images of Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition at Palestinian stone throwers won Palestinians the sympathy of television viewers in Israel and abroad. The demoralizing carnage convinced many Israelis that it was time to end the occupation -- and helped put the pro-peace Rabin government in power.
"But this time around, almost nothing will move me to sympathize with Palestinians," warned Klein-Halevi. "They've had their chance too often. Barak committed political suicide for them but Arafat stayed with his arms folded and said: 'It's not good enough, you're not on your knees yet.'"
The situation on the ground has also changed in Israel's favor since the early 1990s. During the intifada, Israeli troops were positioned in the center of Palestinian towns, within easy reach of stone throwers and Molotov-cocktail launchers. Today, in contrast, there are very few points of contact between Israelis and Palestinians (mainly at checkpoints between Palestinian-run and Israeli areas). At the same time, Arafat has armed a dozen militias since he became president of the Palestinian Authority. In riots earlier this year, those militias showed their willingness to use their rifles against Israeli police. Palestinian gunmen make much less photogenic underdogs than do teenagers with slingshots.
Ironically, by refusing peace offerings at Camp David, Arafat might be better able to prevent war. Some analysts refuse to believe that Palestinian violence is currently a real threat. Calculated tension, mass demonstrations -- perhaps. But Arafat is thought to be strong enough to contain any serious conflagration. By standing firm at Camp David, "Arafat has reconstructed his legitimacy and is in full control of the streets," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a political analyst at PASSIA, a Palestinian think tank.
As their leaders face a looming deadline, the people's experience points to the realities of the road to peace. For 20 years, residents of the Oasis of Peace, a mixed community near Jerusalem where Arab and Jewish families live together, have been facing these enormous issues inside a microcosm. There, Arab and Jewish children learn to play and cooperate in the shade of bougainvillea trees. The villagers are some of the most optimistic peaceniks on either side. But their lives show just how difficult achieving harmonious coexistence can be.
Despite an abundance of goodwill, the Arab families living there feel inferior to the Jewish villagers. Even in the village's bilingual school, Hebrew dominates Arabic. And even in the village's Utopian confines, Arabs cannot agree on how friendly and accommodating toward Jews they should be.
Abdessalam Najjar, a 48-year-old congenial Arab Israeli, was idealistic enough to move to the Oasis of Peace 20 years ago. But these days Najjar puts little stock in the words of political doves. Israelis "want a peace treaty with continued occupation of Jerusalem, with a continuation of settlements and with the continuation of Israel's domination over the Palestinians," said Najjar. "Everybody wants 'peace' when it means nothing."
Given his experience in the village, Najjar thinks it is foolish to expect a final settlement of the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. "You need a commitment on both sides in favor of step-by-step reconciliation instead of thinking in terms of all or nothing," he said.