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Much Riding on Mideast Summit for All 3 Leaders


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat join President Clinton today for a rare three-way peace summit, each buffeted by troubles at home and each very much wanting a deal, but for very different reasons.

All three leaders face restive oppositions that are watching their moves closely. And all three could undoubtedly use success in the talks--however success is defined--to build domestic political advantage.

The summit opens five years and one month after the historic Oslo accords formally ended hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians and set in motion a laborious peace process aimed at protecting Israelis from terrorism and establishing limited Palestinian self-rule.

With the peace process stalemated for more than 18 months, however, and acrimony and mistrust deepening, the meeting at Maryland's Wye Plantation is seen by many as a crucial last chance to prevent renewed full-scale, open conflict.

The U.S.-drafted compromise before Netanyahu and Arafat requires the Israelis to withdraw from an additional 13% of West Bank territory in exchange for concrete steps by the Palestinians to halt anti-Israeli terrorism. This interim accord would clear the way to so-called final-status talks that would tackle the most difficult issues in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

"This is the moment when we'll find out if the two parties are ready to make the hard political decisions they've avoided for the past 18 months and get serious about coming to closure," a senior Clinton administration official said. "If we don't get this, or [the] underpinnings of a process, we are heading toward a train wreck."

Arafat has repeatedly threatened to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state in May if the final-status talks envisioned in Oslo are not completed by then. That, U.S. and Middle East experts warn, could trigger a chain of disastrous events, including armed conflict between Israeli troops seeking to retake territory and Palestinian police seeking to keep it.

Arafat needs an agreement at the secluded Wye Plantation--sequestering Middle East leaders is a strategy that has worked before--to give his people something to reaffirm their sagging confidence in his leadership--although the sort of deal that the Palestinian masses would applaud seems out of the question.

Failure in the talks may mean that the ailing Arafat, who dedicated his life to the cause of Palestinian nationalism, will not live to see the outcome of his life's work.

Stalled Peace Process a Boon to Militants

The stagnation of the peace process has cost Arafat and his mainstream Fatah party a large amount of support, sending many followers into the arms of the fast-growing militant Islamic Hamas movement. Palestinians are increasingly disillusioned by the failure of peace to bring them the land and prosperity they expected.

"We hope to arrive to a conclusion, something concrete, not only talks, talks, talks," Arafat told reporters this week in Amman, Jordan's capital, where he had traveled to brief Crown Prince Hassan.

"This could be the end of the road," added Arafat's spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh. "Either we will have a breakthrough and progress in the peace process, or we will reach a dangerous, blocked road."

The Israelis are demanding that Arafat agree to a detailed program to dismantle Hamas' armed wing and other extremist groups blamed for terrorist attacks that have claimed scores of Israeli lives in recent years. It is a risky move for Arafat because such a crackdown would target precisely those seen as heroes by many Palestinians. Arafat's negotiators note that they earlier agreed to a broad security memorandum, but the Israelis want to bind the Palestinians to a step-by-step plan on which they would condition a phased release of land.

Netanyahu Pressured by Extremists, Settlers

Netanyahu is also under pressure from Israeli extremists, settlers and his own right-wing supporters. The prime minister spent the days before the U.S. trip courting senior right-wing officials and religious leaders. Several on the right have threatened to oust Netanyahu if he signs away more land to the Palestinians, and they have begun floating the names of alternative candidates for prime minister to underscore the point.

They want guarantees that Jewish settlements in the West Bank will retain territorial contiguity; extradition of Palestinian murder suspects; and amendment of the Palestinian charter to remove language calling for the destruction of Israel (the Palestinians say they have already annulled the clauses in question).

"We told Netanyahu, in no uncertain terms, that if his stand on any of these issues is eroded by American pressure, then we will withdraw our support from his government," said Shaul Yahalom, the transportation minister from the National Religious Party, an important member of Netanyahu's coalition. "He will then be left without a government. We stressed that this is no bluff."

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