The setting was unmistakably Egyptian: a conference hall framed by the sparkling Red Sea on one side, and the vast, dust-dry Sinai on the other. But inside the room, the scene had all the trappings of the American imperium. Standing at the center of the peace table at Sharm al-Sheikh was Bill Clinton, towering like a gray-clad wall between the two smaller, taut-faced antagonists, Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat. The president, his hair perfectly coifed even though he'd pulled yet another all-nighter for peace, exuded calm and command. He was flanked by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union foreign-policy czar Javier Solana, and the host of the summit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. All had sought a Mideast ceasefire separately, but this was clearly Clinton's show. After all, it was the U.S. president, noted Mubarak in giving him the stage, who was "the key sponsor of the peace process."
If so, he's also the fall guy. Last week's announcement of a ceasefire was meant as a last-ditch effort to rescue peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But by Saturday, the day after the oral truce accord was supposed to take effect--with the Israelis withdrawing forces and lifting "closure" of Gaza, and the Palestinian police exerting control over rioters--widespread violence had erupted again. Efforts to implement the ceasefire quickly ended on both sides. In Ramallah and Gaza, several Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops, while elsewhere in the occupied territories hundreds of rioters were injured in clashes with Israelis. The day before, a truckload of Israeli soldiers on the West Bank took a wrong turn and was fired on as it left a Palestinian Authority checkpoint. Five Israeli soldiers were wounded. Gunfights erupted for a second straight day in Nablus, where four Palestinians were left dead. In Ramallah, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot in the head as 1,500 protesters converged on Israeli lines. Outraged rioters displayed pieces of his brain to reporters. "The Americans are irrelevant," spat one protester, Mohammed Abdel Kareem.
So much for Clinton's air of command. If the Sharm al-Sheikh ceasefire breaks down entirely, it will likely take with it the last shreds of Bill Clinton's credibility in the Mideast. A broken truce now, nearly a month after violence erupted between Palestinian rioters and Israeli forces, would mean that for the fourth straight summit since January, Clinton has failed in a high-stakes bid for Mideast peace. And with the election of the next president on Nov. 7, Clinton is set to become a true lame duck. Even at Sharm al-Sheik, Barak reportedly told Clinton it might be months before peace talks could resume. His real message: your day, Mr. President, is done.
One slender hope emerged from an Arab summit in Cairo over the weekend. Representatives of 22 Arab nations, despite much harsh anti-Israel rhetoric, failed to give broad-based support to a violent "jihad" against Israel or to any kind of trade embargo against the West. And Arafat, in a speech, said he still held out hopes for "a permanent, just and comprehensive peace." That could give pause to Barak, who had said Friday that he is ready to call a "timeout" on peace talks, a move expected to lead to a national emergency government with the hard-line Likud Party. Barak may also push for total separation from the Palestinians.
In any case, it may not be possible to hold new peace talks without a peace broker. And today the Clinton administration no longer seems to have a credible mediator it can send to the field. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has tried hard to win the trust of both Barak and Arafat--the Palestinian leader in particular. But she is not especially respected by either side. Albright, in fact, hasn't stepped foot in Israel or the occupied territories since the violence began. Her decision to go only as far as Paris to mediate a ceasefire in the first week turned into a debacle when French President Jacques Chirac sought to impose his will. (Chirac, according to U.S. sources, encouraged Arafat to hold out for a better deal after he had already agreed to one.) Longtime U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, despite Herculean expenditures of time and effort over a decade, is thought a spent force and too junior to make a real difference now, with emotions so raw. The only possible, odd exception is George Tenet; the CIA director, who is said to be trusted by both sides, has been overseeing security for the ceasefire.
None of this means that the Clinton administration is to blame for the breakdown of peace. Some critics insist the president waited too long to hold last July's Camp David summit; others suggest the summit was rushed. Still others say the United States failed to consult enough with friendly Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which might have urged Arafat to accept a compromise deal. It's all bosh, say Clinton officials. "This has been going on for 52 years!" says a senior administration official. "It's like saying that the surgery caused the disease. The same with Sharm. If we'd not gone, they'd be killing each other."
But the two sides are killing each other now. And it may well take months or years, experts say, be-fore they come again to the understanding they reached at Oslo: that a peace deal is the only way out of a permanent state of war. That may well happen without Barak, who is thought politically moribund, or even Arafat, who has lost credibility as a peacemaker with both the Israelis and Americans. The aging Palestinian leader has not named a successor, and it is utterly unclear what kind of regime might follow him.
The Israelis, at least, are ready for a total breakdown. The Israeli Army is prepared to reoccupy large parts of Palestinian-controlled territory under a secret operational plan called "Field of Thorns," NEWSWEEK has learned. The purpose would not be to annex the land but to use it as a "bargaining chip" in future negotiations. If that happens, some future U.S. administration will likely get involved again. "There is no alternative to the Americans' brokering in the Middle East," one French diplomat conceded last week. No alternative, perhaps, but war.