Clinton's legacy in peril

July 12, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - It is only natural that the political community would speculate about President Clinton's motives in trying to mediate an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David.

Just 22 years ago President Jimmy Carter wrote himself into the history books by bringing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to Camp David for the intensive negotiations that produced the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. It was, by any reasonable measure, the most significant step ever taken toward peace in the Middle East.

So it would be understandable if Mr. Clinton is nourishing hopes he can accomplish something comparable - and be remembered for something other than Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment proceeding brought against him by the Republicans. But the task seems even more daunting than the one that confronted Mr. Carter.

In that case, the president devoted his considerable energies for almost a year in trying to bring the two leaders to the table. Indeed, by the late spring of 1978, he had reached the point at which he felt he could no longer devote so much time to the Middle East without failing in his other responsibilities. His remarkable store of patience had been almost exhausted, particularly by the contentious Begin. He would make one last attempt, Mr. Carter decided, and that one last attempt was the Camp David summit.

There seems to be a similar dimension of roll-the-dice desperation in Mr. Clinton's initiative. And the prospects for success seem far more remote than was the case when Mr. Carter was dealing with the difficult Begin. The Israelis and Palestinians have been at each others' throats for 52 years, and the most emotional and complex issues remain to be confronted.

Neither of the principals being brought to Camp David, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has a position of unchallenged authority comparable to those Begin and Sadat held at the time of the 1978 meeting. And Mr. Clinton's authority is undermined to some degree by his own loss of prestige as well as by the fact he is a lame duck president with only a few months left to be a major player on the world stage.

Mr. Barak is under intense pressure to reach an agreement. His governing coalition has been strained if not fractured by defections of rightist religious parties angered by the concessions he already has made to the Palestinians. Simultaneously, he is under fire from the left because of their view he has gone too far in placating the religious parties.

Meanwhile, Mr. Arafat is making it clear that he sees little reason for the summit because there has been inadequate preliminary work done to lay a foundation for an agreement. And he is under pressure to heed the Sept. 13 deadline he set himself for declaring Palestinian statehood if negotiations don't produce, a step that inevitably would set off new rounds of violence in the region.

The issues are complex and volatile. How much of the West Bank will be enough to satisfy the Palestinians? What about the Israeli settlements? What kind of compromise can be reached on the two parties' roles and rights in Jerusalem? What concessions can either make with the assurance they can deliver when they come down from the mountain?

The stakes for Mr. Clinton are less direct. The one thing that is clear is that any settlement will require a substantial amount of money - estimates range from $40 billion to $60 billion over 10 years - to pay the costs of relocating both Palestinians and Israelis once an agreement on permanent borders has been reached.

The United States would be able to get some help from European allies and from the oil-rich states whose own security would be greatly enhanced by a final settlement in the region. But Mr. Clinton would have to go to Congress for a large contribution, and it would be no surprise if there were a few Republicans not anxious to help the Democratic president and his vice president score some historic international triumph in an election year.

If history is a guide, however, there may be little political gold in even the greatest successes in the Middle East. A week after Mr. Carter joined with Begin and Sadat in declaring the success of Camp David in 1978, a Gallup Poll showed his approval rating had risen - by a single point.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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