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Arafat, Barak have good reason to prolong summit

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - When the roller coaster of Middle East peace talks screeched to a halt after nine inconclusive days on Thursday, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders held on for dear life.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had good reason to stay put. Neither wanted to risk being blamed for the failure to reach a peace agreement or any violence that a stalemate could ignite.

Political analysts said the two leaders also stayed on to avoid angering the United States, vital for both sides, and because they feared that what had been achieved at Camp David would quickly unravel if they left now.

For Barak, there was an added threat to his political survival if he came hope empty-handed.

"They realized they had done a great deal of work already, and they didn't want to see that wasted, going down the drain," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian professor of political science at al-Najah University in the West Bank.

The unraveling of whatever had been achieved at Camp David -- and this remained shrouded in secrecy -- could lead to violent clashes, a scenario feared by Barak, Arafat and their host, U.S. President Bill Clinton.

"They would start a cycle that may get out of control with escalating violence and perhaps leave no chance in the near future to pick up the pieces and resume the talks," Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg told Reuters.

Announcing the decision by Arafat and Barak to keep talking, shortly after the White House had said the summit had ended without an agreement, Clinton said: "Nobody wanted to go...Nobody wanted to give up."

Fear of violence, loss of U.S. aid

After seven years of peacemaking launched in Oslo, the sides have been trying to forge a framework for solving issues so tough they were left for last: borders, Jewish settlers, Palestinian refugees -- and Jerusalem, the toughest of all.

For each Middle East leader, the relationship with the United States is perhaps more important than the one with each other. Washington is their chief advocate on the world stage and the key supplier of economic -- and for Israel, military -- aid.

"Half the exercise from the very beginning was to try to make sure that if things fell apart, they wouldn't be blamed by Clinton or the United States," said Mark Heller, a political analyst at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Shikaki said: "There is no doubt again that one of the factors I think was not to let Clinton down completely... After nine days of sitting with the man, it can become very personal."

Political risks of failure

Each Middle East leader had something to lose at home also.

It was do-or-die politically for Barak, whose claim to leadership after a year in office has been his vow to make peace with the Arabs.

Without an agreement, Barak might be able to reassemble the coalition that collapsed last week when right-wingers pulled out in protest at his readiness to compromise at Camp David. But the gain for Barak might be only short-term.

"In the long term he would have nothing left on which to maintain political support," said Steinberg, head of the conflict-resolution programme at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

Barak based his make-or-break strategy on the notion, supported by opinion polls, that a majority of the Israeli public is willing to make compromises for peace.

"His strategy for a long time has been to screw the coalition, screw the Knesset (Israel's parliament), and go for a deal which he thinks is good for Israel -- and if it's good for Israel, to sell it to the people over the heads of the politicians," Heller said.

Arafat also stood to lose with his people in the long term if he returned empty-handed, even though he would please some Palestinian factions by refusing to make the compromises needed to secure a deal.

Arafat has vowed to declare an independent Palestine as soon as September 13 -- an action that Israeli officials have said could prompt Israel to annex lands it still occupies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, possibly igniting a war.

Steinberg said the losses for him could be considerable in this case.

"In terms of his legacy he would have nothing to show. He would exit the stage at exactly the same point as he entered it in the mid-1960s (when Arafat formed the Palestine Liberation Organization)," he said.

"If Israeli tanks are sitting in Palestinian cities, then there's no accomplishment."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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