- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel's history, embarked yesterday on an effort to make peace with the Palestinians, virtually alone and abandoned on his nation's political battlefield.
Deserted by his coalition allies at the most critical moment in his career, the Israeli prime minister reiterated his determination to achieve a final peace agreement with the Palestinians before leaving for the United States.
But even his own foreign minister, David Levy, remained unconvinced and refused to accompany him.
President Clinton convened the open-ended Middle East peace summit at Camp David yesterday with Mr. Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, each sounding different notes about what they hope to achieve.
The visiting leaders both "recognized the difficulties that face them but also the opportunity before them," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "They all indicated the importance of getting to work and getting to work quickly."
But almost from the beginning the two sides read from different scripts.
Israeli officials accompanying Mr. Barak have spoken in recent days of a historical breakthrough.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told reporters in Washington yesterday that Mr. Arafat wanted to raise unfinished business left over from the 1998 Wye River peace accords.
Mr. Barak is staking his career on a bid to make history. On Monday he watched his governing coalition crumble and barely survived a no-confidence vote before heading to the mountains of Western Maryland.
It was a stinging slap for the Israeli prime minister at the expense of an energized opposition.
"Ehud Barak represents nobody except perhaps himself," said opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon from the Knesset podium Monday night after three parties dropped out of Mr. Barak's coalition.
The parties bolted amid fears the prime minister was preparing to make too many concessions to the Palestinians.
"You operate alone. You think alone … and you are going to Washington alone," Mr. Sharon said in a stinging rebuke to Mr. Barak before the 120-member parliament.
Mr. Barak, like an old warrior, responded with a defiant vow to go over the head of lawmakers by putting to a public referendum the peace agreement he hopes to achieve.
Recent public opinion polls have shown a marked decline in Mr. Barak's popularity, with one survey last week indicating that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would defeat Mr. Barak today.
But Mr. Barak remains convinced that once a real peace agreement is achieved, the public will overwhelmingly endorse it.
At Camp David, Mr. Barak will attempt to forge an agreement with the Palestinians that would resolve the heart of the Israel-Arab dispute.
Should the summit end in failure, widespread violence and terrorism is seen as almost certain to break out.
"The hour of truth is close, and I am ready for it," said Mr. Barak at the airport in Israel before boarding his plane for the United States. "The time has come to put an end to the [Israel-Arab] dispute."
Instead, the Palestinians took aim at past pledges they claim Israelis have not kept.
"Previous agreements have not been implemented," Mrs. Ashrawi said, citing what she said were Israeli agreements to turn over land on the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners.
"There has been no accountability or enforcement of past agreements," she said.
Mr. Clinton met twice privately with both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat before the three leaders joined in a single half-hour plenary session.
Meeting at the Aspen Lodge, the president's personal cabin at the mountaintop Maryland retreat, the first order of business was to impose a media blackout on the substance of the talks.
In remarks at the White House yesterday morning before departing by helicopter, Mr. Clinton said there could be no success at the summit "without principled compromise."
"Both leaders feel the weight of history, but both, I believe, recognize this is a moment in history which they can seize," said Mr. Clinton.
The president said he believed Mr. Barak could be effective at the summit despite a series of defections that have eroded his government back home.
The meeting of the three principals began on a friendly note, with Mr. Clinton recounting the history and describing the amenities of Camp David for his two guests, noting in particular the compound's bowling ally.
At the door to the lodge, Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat made a mock show of insisting the other enter first, with the Israeli leader putting a playful bear hug around his Palestinian counterpart before both disappeared into the cabin.
But the issues the two now face are some of the most difficult and delicate in the region, including the borders of a potential Palestinian state, the fate of some 145 Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
William B. Quandt, who served on a U.S. negotiating team at the first Camp David summit hosted by President Carter in 1978 to resolve the Israel-Egypt impasse, said the differences between the two negotiations outweigh the similarities; obstacles this time include Mr. Clinton's short remaining time in office, the political weakness of both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat and the degree of difficulty of issues on the table.
"Jerusalem, settlements, refugee claims, water and territory are all issues that are not easily resolved," he said.
Mr. Quandt is now a professor at the University of Virginia. His writings on the earlier summit have influenced Mr. Clinton's thinking on the present peace effort, White House officials said.
Abraham Rabinovich reported from Jerusalem and David R. Sands from Thurmont, Md.

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