JERUSALEM -- The Mideast peace talks scheduled to reopen in Washington tomorrow offer the greatest chance of success since the negotiations began -- and also the biggest risk of disaster.
The peace talks are to be held in the political steam of a U.S. presidential campaign, where anything can overboil. The location no coincidence: President Bush requested the switch to Washington to benefit his campaign, though the move could backfire if there is no progress.
As proof of the volatility of the situation, a row broke out even as the negotiators were getting to Washington, a dispute that may delay the Palestinians' arrival for the start of the talks.
As the Palestinian delegation tried to leave the West Bank over the bridge to Jordan on Friday, Israeli soldiers refused to let at least four of the staff members go. They did not have permits required of Palestinians under 35 who wish to return within nine months, the army said.
The entire delegation angrily returned to Jerusalem. The Palestinians appealed to U.S. and Russian diplomats yesterday in hopes of reaching a resolution to start their trip today or tomorrow.
Just over a week ago, the negotiators were approaching this round of talks with more optimism than they have had since the negotiations began in Madrid, Spain, 10 months ago.
The omens were good: The new government in Israel had vowed to end its predecessor's intransigence, the Arab parties were murmuring encouraging signs, and the U.S. secretary of state, James A. Baker III, seemed to be lining up the players for a breakthrough.
But a pall fell over those prospects when Mr. Bush announced he would support $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel and then transferred Mr. Baker from the State Department to try to salvage his re-election campaign.
The Arab side had anticipated the president's support of the loan guarantees. But they were startled at the chumminess between Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when the two met in Kennebunkport, Maine, two weeks ago.
They were further appalled to learn that Mr. Bush apparently got no further concessions from Israel in return for the whole $10 billion package and, as icing, endorsed the military superiority of Israel.
Representatives of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians met in Damascus, Syria, last week to consider whether to boycott the talks entirely.
"It wasn't an easy decision to make," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for Palestinian delegation. "We feel the balance has been tipped."
The peace negotiators also had expected Mr. Baker's resignation, although Mr. Baker had reportedly sidestepped their questions about the possibility of the move on his visit to the Middle East last month.
Mr. Baker shuttled 10 times to the region to arrange the historic talks, intended to forge peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors and to begin resolution of the Palestinian issue. One negotiator called him the "godfather" of the peace talks.
Now both the Arabs and Israelis have too much at stake to let Mr. Baker's transfer stall the talks.
"The peace process does not hinge on one person," said Ms. Ashrawi.
Mr. Rabin won election in June promising a new day in the negotiations, campaigning on a promise of freezing Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
The Palestinians were buoyed by his promises but since have been bitterly disappointed to realize that the freeze is only partial, that enough construction could continue in the coming years to increase the number of settlers by almost 50 percent.
Similarly, the Israeli side has been disappointed not to have seen a reciprocal gesture by the Arabs for the political risks taken by the new administration. Mr. Rabin's ministers continue tightening restrictions on the settlers -- this week they stopped all housing grants to Jews in the territories, and banks called in some settlers' loans -- despite the howls of the Jewish political right.
"We are here on the giving side," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres insisted Wednesday. "I think it will be a tragic mistake" if the Arab parties do not respond.
It could also be a tragedy for President Bush. He brought the talks to Washington to showcase what has perhaps been his biggest foreign policy success. But if the upcoming talks fizzle to nothing just as the election nears, it would be a blow to his campaign.
The decision to attend the talks "does not mean we are committed to anything," warned Faisal al-Husseini, head of the Palestinian advisory delegation.
The biggest dispute may be over the elections planned for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to oversee autonomy in the area, as the Israelis relax controls. The Israelis envision the elected body as little more than a large municipal council. The Palestinians see it as a shadow parliament with the right to make laws.
If that dispute can be resolved, Mr. Bush's campaign will benefit all autumn from reports from Israel on preparations for Palestinian elections. It will be the first tangible success in the Middle East conflict since the 1979 Camp David accords.
Both sides are keenly aware that what they do could have an effect on the U.S. campaign.
"Israelis feel the U.S. election will affect their national destiny," observed an editorial in an Israeli newspaper. "The winner, after all, will be the world's most influential political figure."