- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

The Mideast summit at Camp David, having survived a near-death episode, was revived Thursday as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright huddled with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in pursuit of an elusive peace deal.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mrs. Albright, chairing the summit while President Clinton attends this weekend's Group of Eight summit in Japan, met separately with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to assess the state of the talks just 12 hours after the White House prematurely announced the summit had failed.

"I think the parties wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be here if we didn't think there was some potential," Mr. Boucher said.

But analysts said Thursday it was more the fear of failure than the prospect of success that persuaded Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to remain at the Maryland presidential retreat until Mr. Clinton returns on Sunday or Monday to try to clinch a deal.

"I think they looked over the abyss and didn't like what they saw," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, which follows Mideast events.

With both leaders on shaky political ground, many fear the Mideast could be hurtling toward a new round of violence if the Camp David effort breaks down.

Mr. Arafat says he is prepared to declare an independent Palestinian state after Sept. 13 on the territory he controls in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which could provoke violent clashes with Israel.

The Israeli army has already deployed forces in the West Bank and Gaza to deal with the possibility of armed conflict and there have been warnings that tanks and helicopter gunships will be employed if necessary.

Palestinian leaders have likewise been preparing their people for confrontation while fundamentalist groups have hinted at a renewal of terror attacks.

In an extraordinary series of events late Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning, the White House officially announced a collapse of the nine-day summit without a deal, only to say an hour later that the talks would go on.

"Nobody wanted to give up, and that should be encouraging," a hoarse, bleary-eyed Mr. Clinton told reporters Thursday morning before boarding Air Force One for Japan.

With the negotiators now in their eleventh day of talks at the isolated Camp David compound, the near-collapse of the summit inspired a round of public finger-pointing Thursday that U.S. negotiators had hoped to avoid.

"If the summit fails, it is a failure of American policy because it stands behind Israel, and a failure of Israeli policy because they refused to implement international resolutions," Suleiman Najjab, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, told reporters in Ramullah Thursday.

Israeli officials in Mr. Barak's government contended it was Mr. Arafat who was the main sticking point, refusing to accept what they described as a U.S. "bridging proposal" containing compromises on such sensitive issues as the future of Jerusalem and the status of millions of Palestinian refugees.

A Barak ally, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, maintained that Israel "has gone out of its way to display flexibility. Now it's the turn of the Palestinians. That's what we are expecting."

But Mr. Smerling argued the dangers of a complete breakdown made at least a partial Camp David accord more likely.

"They showed everyone that they swung for the fences and they failed," he said. "Now maybe they can see if they'll be satisfied with a double."

But U.S. officials were frank in admitting that the gaps on substance remain wide between the two sides, and that the summit was kept alive despite the absence of any meaningful progress in the final hours.

Said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart early Thursday morning: "There's nothing that happened this evening in a concrete way that would make us believe that [Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak] are closer to resolving their differences. This is still very, very hard, very, very tough."

Mr. Clinton did not even explicitly promise to resume the summit upon his return, saying only he would meet with Mrs. Albright to assess the situation.

• Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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