WASHINGTON — When President Clinton returns today to the Middle East peace talks, he faces a stark reality: No matter how badly he wants to broker a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian treaty, he might have to settle for something less.
Clinton's vaunted determination to get his way was evident during the nine days at Camp David, Md., before he had to leave for a summit of industrialized nations in Japan early Thursday. But he was unable to cajole or pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to make the compromises necessary to resolve generations of conflict.
Now, Middle East experts say, the time has come for all three leaders--especially Clinton--to come up with a partial deal that would look like peace even if it didn't solve all the intractable disputes.
"Now they must be thinking about how to save what they have done [in the negotiations], while finessing the issues they can't solve, so they can go back to their respective constituencies claiming that this is not the end but the beginning," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist in the Reagan administration. "There really has been some quite significant progress on many of the issues. They have to put this in the most positive light."
So far, Clinton, Barak and Arafat have resisted that course. During the nine days and nights of exhaustive and often acrimonious negotiations before Clinton's departure for Japan, the Israelis and the Palestinians stuck to their maximum demands on the most contentious issues. The U.S. delegation tried to suggest compromises, but many of those "bridging proposals" were rebuffed.
Clinton often acted as if he could produce an agreement by the force of his will. Sometimes, Clinton's refusal to give up has stood him in very good stead, most notably in the way he turned back an impeachment conviction by the Senate. But so far, at least, it hasn't been enough in the Middle East talks.
Late Wednesday, Clinton was the one who gave up, announcing that the summit was ending without an agreement. But Barak and Arafat then decided that failure was such a bad option that they would try again.
Late Saturday night, Clinton told Marines at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan, that he was leaving the island earlier than planned today so that he could return to Camp David immediately after his arrival in the United States.
His remarks were brief, and he closed by saying, "I thank you for the inspiration you've given me as I go back to try to finalize the peace talks on the Middle East." The president left early this morning.
Although a deal might hinge on give-and-take, compromise is often a foul word in the Middle East. Arafat, especially, is under intense pressure from the Palestinian public and neighboring Arab governments to refuse to bargain away "rights" that the Palestinians have been unable to exercise for decades because of Israeli military and political control.
According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, Arafat has refused to relinquish the Palestinian claim to full sovereignty in parts of Jerusalem or to give up the right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral homes in Israel. Clinton and his aides have tried to convince the Palestinians that getting part of what they want on those issues and some others is better than what they have now--nothing.
Although Barak has refused to give Arafat everything he wants, the Israeli prime minister brought to the summit the most generous package ever offered by Israel to the Palestinians. Israeli officials have said that, if Arafat refuses to take the offer, he will never again see one as favorable to his aspirations. But there is evidence that the Palestinians believe that they can get a better deal.
Even if Barak and Arafat can never reach complete agreement on emotional issues such as Jerusalem or refugees, their delegations appear to have resolved some lesser disputes. Clinton said early Thursday that "the gaps remain substantial, but there has been progress."
Now, according to Middle East specialists, Clinton should bring out his fallback position.
"Clinton must find a formula to lock in progress that has been made," said Lewis Roth, an official of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Israel's largest peace group. "He can do that. The challenge is to show there is enough in the package for the leaders to take it back to their publics and show the gains they got."
But settling for a partial deal has its risks: Barak and Arafat would likely face complaints that they yielded too much without reaching a complete settlement. Experts on Israeli and Palestinian public opinion believe that a comprehensive treaty would be popular but that a partial deal might not.