Camp David II raises hope as world seeks Mideast peace

Issues more complex, standing of leaders less secure than in '78

July 09, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The address is the same: Camp David. And so is the goal: persuading an Arab and an Israeli to take the biggest chances ever for the sake of a once-unimaginable peace treaty.

But when U.S. and Middle Eastern leaders head for the Maryland mountains this week to try to stanch decades of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, their task will be far tougher than what negotiators for Israel, Egypt and the United States encountered two decades ago in the "first Camp David."

On Tuesday, President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will arrive at the presidential retreat to try to forge a final accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

The talks, which might last a week or more, are supposed to cap an on-and-off bargaining process that first gathered momentum seven years ago in Oslo, Norway.

Facing an impasse among lower-level delegates, White House officials maintain that intensive, private negotiations involving top leaders are the only way to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.

They acknowledge the difficulty of the talks ahead, which are supposed to resolve the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees, draw borders for a Palestinian nation and determine the political future of Jerusalem.

"To state the task is to suggest the magnitude of the challenge," Clinton said last week.

But prospects for peace, administration officials argue, are no more challenging at the start of Camp David II than they were in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter helped end three decades of war by summoning Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar el Sadat to the same site in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.

Precedent for success

"At the original Camp David, they were also at a point where they were stuck," a senior Clinton administration official said. "They did not call that summit because they had everything sewed up. They did not do that."

The intended message, which the White House hopes will be absorbed by the Israelis and the Palestinians, is this: If the 1978 Camp David participants could wade through doubt, hatred and complexity to grasp peace, so can the negotiators in Camp David II.

Holding Middle East talks at Camp David in 1978 "was at least as much of a gamble as it is now," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter's national security adviser.

"There had never been a peace treaty between any Arab country and Israel. It required a real psychological breakthrough."

While Arafat enjoys the support of other Arab leaders, "Egypt had to break ranks with all the Arab countries," Brzezinski said. While all parties at Camp David this week agree that the goal is permanent peace, in 1978 "the notion of a peace treaty was something that was unthinkable" until the summit produced one, he said.

Obstacles more difficult

Even so, many foreign policy specialists contend that the riddles of this summit will be much more difficult to solve than the ones Carter, Sadat and Begin confronted.

At the same time, uncertain political support at home could make it much tougher for leaders on both sides to make the hard choices for peace, analysts say.

"People have to be careful of saying, `This is another Camp David,'" said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies for the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The geography is the same, but after that it breaks down."

The key to the 1978 deal, whose treaty was signed in March 1979, was Israel's agreement to return to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, which it had captured in the 1967 Six Day War. The Sinai is a vast, relatively unpopulated tract that had served mainly as a strategic buffer between the two countries.

The current negotiations also involve the exchange of land for peace. But the land in question, far from being the empty desert where the ancient Israelites wandered for 40 years, virtually glows with symbolism and heritage.

"The holiest places in Judaism, very holy places for Islam," said Haass. "The differences, it seems to me, are immense."

This week's talks will delve deeply into the problem of creating permanent borders for a Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip and in portions of the West Bank. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war, when it also took the Sinai from Egypt.

That tract holds the ancient Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria, which have been occupied by thousands of Jewish settlers eager to claim what they see as a God-given birthright.

Another piece of territory caught up in the current talks is even more sacred: Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.

But land is only the beginning of the difficult issues that await this week's negotiators.

Arafat wants Israel to recognize a Palestinian state and has threatened to proclaim independence unilaterally after Sept. 13 if no peace deal is forged by then.

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