'It's A Leap Into The Abyss'

Chalk it up again to the inverted logic of the Middle East peace process. You could almost chart the likelihood of a peace summit by the escalation of rhetoric from Israeli and Palestinian officials. The harsher the rhetoric, the better the chance a summit would actually take place.

There was even an odd symmetry to the behavior of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir arafat. Last week Arafat made a fiery speech vowing, among other things, that he would never give up Jerusalem. Barak, for his part, repeated the Israeli mantra that Jerusalem would remain the "undivided, eternal capital of Israel." Arafat's Palestinian Central Committee promised to declare a state by Septmber 13. Barak immediately threatened to annex parts of the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley to Israel. A Palestinian Authority minister, Imad al-Falouji, called on extremist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to prepare for armed conflict with Israel. Shaul Mofaz, Israel's army chief of staff, threatened to use tanks and attack helicopters in the West Bank. Last weekend Arafat flew to Paris to lobby for French President Jacques Chirac's support for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. Not to be outmaneuvered, four days later Barak jetted off to Paris to curry favor with Chirac.

But by late Wednesday, the posturing and positioning started to give way to more statesmanlike proclamations. As soon as Presidedent Clinton announced that he would convene a summit at Camp David next week, Palestinian and Israeli officials began talking about historic opportunities. Summiteers in both camps began dusting off memoirs by diplomats who participated in and later wrote about the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli summit at the Catoctin Mountain hideaway. There was talk of good will gestures on both sides to improve the working environment.

But this being the Middle East, whatever burst of enthusiasm was quickly tempered by a countervailing dose of fatalism. Ahmed Qurei, Arafat's chief negotiator, warned that the summit would probably fail and the Palestinians wanted negotiations to continue in an effort to close the yawning gaps before a summit was convened. And despite the Israeli view that a summit was the only way to break the impasse, officials here have no illusions about the risks involved. "It's a leap into the abyss," one Israeli negotiator told Newsweek. "But it's one we know we have to take."

Both sides are well aware of the risks involved. In recent speeches Arafat has raised expectations that he will remain firm on Palestinian "red lines." He has not wavered in his demand that Israel withdraw to the June 4, 1967 border, from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all captured during the 1967 Middle East War. But Arafat is worried he will be pressured into making painful concessions his people will reject. Already, according to a recent poll conducted by an independent Palestinian group, Arafat's approval ratings have plummeted to around 30 percent. Barak faces equally dire political consequences. Within hours of President Clinton's announcement, Natan Sharansky, the former Russian dissident and head of a small Israeli party representing Russian Jews, announced he was quitting Barak's coaltion. Another religious party, the National Religious Party, quickly followed suit. Barak vowed to soldier on, even with minority support. But at a rally near Jerusalem's city hall, Israeli protesters reacted with bitterness to the news about the summit. "Barak is giving my land away to the enemy," said Yossi Ginsburg, 20. "I want peace, but not a dangerous peace."

It is precisely to insulate Barak and Arafat from such pressures that Clinton has summoned the two leaders to his quiet, wooded presidential retreat. Convening the summit at Camp David carries risks. The symbolism could inflate expectations. But Clinton is betting that its historical resonance will inspire Arafat and Barak to rise above petty, parochial differences. "These two summits, some 20 years apart, can serve as historical bookends," says a State Department official. One positive sign: Within hours of the news, a Palestinian negotiator was already invoking the grandiose language of history. "The destinies of our grandchildren and their grandchildren rests on the shoulders of these two leaders," says the negotiator. "This is their burden to bear."