Sitting amid the squalor of the Deheisha refugee camp, Naeem Abu Aker holds up a rusty key. It is, he says, the key to the house near Jerusalem that he fled in 1948--to the 2,000 acres his family lost and their fragrant, never-forgotten apple orchards. It is also the key to Abu Aker's outrage, an all-embracing passion that will brook no excuse or compromise, especially from Yasir Arafat. In the camp, his home for the 52 years since Israel's "War of Liberation," he and his fellow Palestinians live in grim, gray concrete houses piled messily on top of each other like building blocks. Sewage flows down narrow, trash-strewn paths. With 10,000 refugees living in an area of about one square kilometer, Deheisha has one of the highest population densities in the world. But last week Abu Aker was concentrating on events at another place half a world away. His mind's eye was trained, as if on the last wisp of a fading dream, on the bucolic mountain retreat where his fate was being decided: Camp David.
In intensive negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat was said to be demanding a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees like Abu Aker. Barak was stoutly refusing to permit most of them to do so; such a vast inflow of Arabs would mean, most Israelis say, the end of the Jewish state. And Abu Aker has begun losing patience with both Israelis and Arafat. "We are at the peak of our worries right now," he said. "If Arafat gives up the right of return then he will go down and the people will rise up against him." His son, Nidal, sitting beside him, said the Palestinian leader is playing with fire by negotiating the issue at all. "Any spark could make things explode."
Anger will explode on the Israeli side, too, if Jewish hard-liners don't like any peace deal that emerges. Eliyahu Amdadi is just the kind of person who could supply the spark. About 20 minutes up the road from the Deheisha refugee camp, Amdadi stands guard in the tiny Jewish settlement of Carmei Tsur. His home sits between two hostile Palestinian villages on the West Bank, the Israeli-occupied land that would form the heart of any new Palestinian state created from the talks at Camp David. As he speaks, an Uzi slung over his shoulder, the bearded Israeli massages an extra ammo clip he clasps to his prayer book. Amdadi is one of the latest vanguard of Jewish settlers who insist they are reclaiming ancient Eretz Yisrael but who, the Palestinians believe, continue to steal Arab property by building towns on land that Israel captured in 1967. And Amdadi's thoughts, too, are fixed on the secretive talks in the Maryland mountains this week.
Amdadi knows that his leader, Barak, is intent on bargaining away the land surrounding his home to the Palestinians. He accuses Barak of "forsaking" the Jewish people and warns of a "Holocaust" to come. Amdadi believes that when the West Bank is turned over to the Palestinians--or if Arafat declares statehood unilaterally without a deal, as he's threatened to do by Sept. 13--Arabs from the surrounding villages and refugee camps will march on his settlement. "We will open fire immediately," Amdadi says, his dark eyes narrowed. "We are not going to leave this place at any price--ever."
None of these are idle threats. And they say a lot about the box that Barak and Arafat found themselves in last weekend as they awaited the return of their mediator, President Bill Clinton, from a three-day trip to the G8 summit in Japan. Even in the best case, both leaders know, a peace accord will come at a high price. Barak and Arafat understand that a historic breakthrough will require compromise on intractable issues like the right of return and sovereignty over East Jerusalem (which both sides insist on). Yet the two leaders also know they'll confront a torrent of anger, and possibly outbreaks of violence, from hard-liners like Abu Aker and Amdadi if they do give up any ground. At the same time both realize that a failure to get a deal, especially by the Sept. 13 deadline, equally means violence and possibly a war.
This excruciating dilemma helps to explain both last week's near breakdown in talks at Camp David--and why the two leaders were still there early this week, plugging away. It explains why compromise is nearly impossible--and yet necessary. Late last Wednesday, after nine days of fruitlessly restating their bottom-line positions on issues like Jerusalem, Barak and Arafat both decided to give up. The two leaders' planes were fueled and rolled onto the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, luggage safely stowed in their holds. About $7,000 worth of just-purchased airline food was warming in Barak's jet, and Clinton's limousine was idling in front of his cabin in a chilly, driving rain. At about 11 p.m., the president's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, issued the kind of stark statement no spokesman ever wants to make--that the Camp David talks had ended without agreement. It was an announcement so bereft of spin that he might as well have confessed, "World, we have failed."
No one intended this as a negotiating tactic. Yet ironically, Lockhart's statement may have been the best piece of mediating the Americans did all week. For shortly after midnight, an exhausted-looking Clinton made a stunning appearance at the press center near Camp David to say that, in fact, "nobody wanted to quit." By the next day the Israeli airline food had been donated to a homeless-women's shelter in Washington, some journalists and negotiators were still without their bags (and wearing day-old underwear), and the talks were on again. Both sides indicated, stubbornly, that they'd stayed mainly as a courtesy to Clinton. But senior U.S. officials now believe it was the U.S. announcement--the prospect of flying home to a political tinderbox with no resolution--that pulled Barak and Arafat back from the brink.
Another breakdown this week was still possible. And as the talks dragged on in Maryland, the preparations for violence back home almost seemed to outpace the push for peace. On the West Bank, the current call-up of Israeli Army reservists, Israeli military sources tell NEWSWEEK, represents the largest since the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising of the 1980s. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were "preparing for the possibility of confrontation," warned Lt. Col. Avi Nudelman, who is in charge of joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols on the West Bank. Palestinian security forces are openly training young boys to fire AK-47s in summer camps in Gaza, which is also autonomous Palestinian land. Arafat's Fatah organization is stockpiling gasoline, medicine and other materials in the event of violence. One possible trigger: many of the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza vow to stay put despite Barak's plans to relocate some of them. "It's a disaster waiting to happen," says one senior Israeli officer.
To avoid the worst, negotiators appeared to be seeking "the perfect deal": a needle-threading pact that brings a comprehensive peace but is so nimbly worded it allows each leader to say he hasn't violated his bottom-line positions. A possible deal on refugees would include a "statement of empathy" Israelis hope will satisfy the Palestinian demand for a declaration that Israel is responsible for the expulsion of refugees like Abu Aker. That, plus "family reunifications" of a token 70,000-or-so refugees and billions in aid for those not allowed to return, could be the kind of "creative bridging" needed, says Yossi Alpher, a Barak adviser. "It allows the Palestinians to say they did accept responsibility, and it allows Israel to say, no, we didn't... It's not so much a matter of one side giving way, but of a verbal formula." Barak may also concede a right of return for refugees to the new state of Palestine, but not to Israel. That would effectively prevent many refugees from doing so because Arafat, lacking land, will limit their numbers. Last week Palestinian spokesman Hasan Abdel Rahman conceded that "modalities" were being discussed for resolving the refugee issue.
The future status of Jerusalem--the key sticking point in the talks--might also be diplomatically fudged. Barak went into the talks insisting that the holy city remain the "eternal and united capital of Israel." And he pledged to get a "final" accord that would end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for good and pass muster in a national vote. But by the weekend, NEWSWEEK has learned, Barak was ready to give full sovereignty to Arafat in some Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem while leaving the status of the Old City and holy sites unresolved. "There will be a mutual agreement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and Al-Quds [the Arabic term for the city] is the capital of Palestine," said a senior Barak adviser. Arafat may balk even at that, however, and polls suggest that if Barak compromises on Jerusalem he could lose the votes he'll need to stay in power.
The political selling job that Arafat faces on his home front is no easier. Over the weekend thousands of supporters of the militant Palestinian group Hamas marched through Gaza City, demanding no compromise and chanting "Negotiators come home." And whatever deal Arafat makes, Abu Aker is likely to be very unhappy. He will never get his old house back. Arafat probably signed his land away when he agreed, as part of the 1993 Oslo accord now reaching its climax at Camp David, to recognize Israel. The most Abu Aker can hope for is a new home in a new Palestinian state. For many other refugees scattered across the Arab world, especially in Lebanon, where for decades they have festered as unwelcome aliens, the most they can realistically expect is money and sympathy. But many seem not to know it yet. "Arafat has betrayed us before, but I'm willing to give him another chance during these talks," says 21-year-old Muhammad Abu Rodayna, who spends his days shuffling aimlessly along the narrow, filthy alleys of the Sabra-Shatila camp. "The talks are my last hope for a future." The same could possibly be said of the two leaders deciding that future at Camp David.