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Time.com

Clinton leaves Albright to contain summit damage

(TIME.com) -- Ten days at Camp David, and all President Clinton got was the proverbial lousy T-shirt. The T-shirt may, metaphorically, eventually be emblazoned with a dove bearing an olive branch, but it's no substitute for a substantial peace agreement, which may be why the President chose to leave town Thursday before Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak and avoid having to personally preside over the failed negotiations in which he'd invested so much. The odds against Arafat and Barak still being in town when the President returns four days from now are substantial, even though they've committed themselves to continuing talks under the guidance of Secretary of State Albright.

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The fact that Clinton is leaving Albright in charge is a signal that the remaining talks are an exercise in damage control: They've always needed hours of presidential hand-holding even to conclude such small-potatoes interim deals as the Wye Accord, and nobody expects the secretary of state to achieve the all-important deal on Jerusalem that eluded the President. Instead, the remaining discussions are more likely to focus on establishing protocols for future talks -- in other words, helping the Israelis and Palestinians agree on how to disagree.

The biggest loser at Camp David may have been President Clinton, who invested an unprecedented proportion of his presidency trying, with only limited success, to resolve this particular regional conflict. But not far behind him is Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose government was in danger of collapse even before the talks -- he was elected on promises that, unlike his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, he could deliver a credible peace with both Syria and the Palestinians. His opponents won't let up in their campaign against the concessions Barak offered at Camp David, and the fact that those weren't enough to secure a peace deal -- and the potential for intensifying conflict in the coming months as the Palestinians move towards unilaterally declaring a state -- may bode ill for his political future. At the very least, they may force him to cloak himself in more hawkish garb, which will further complicate the pursuit of peace.

Arafat, by contrast, will be stronger among his own base for having stood firm on Jerusalem -- an infinitely more important concern on the Palestinian street than a peace agreement about which most Palestinians feel, at best, ambiguous. But he now faces the tough choice of whether to carry out his threat to declare his state without Israeli agreement come September, potentially plunging the region into a new round of instability, which neither Arafat nor any of his backers will relish.

But it wasn't for lack of trying that the negotiators at Camp David failed to reach agreement; the more chilling reality is that no agreement is possible between these two peoples at this point in their history. Their competing claims on Jerusalem, fueled by centuries-old religious passions, are a symptom of the fact that the peace process, thus far, hasn't offered the historic reckoning between two groups whose very national identity has for decades been mutually exclusive.

The immediate future for the region may well be containment rather than final resolution of the conflict. And it's unlikely that the next U.S. administration will remain quite as engaged with the Middle East as the current one has been. After all, for the amount of personal political capital he invested in it, President Clinton didn't earn much of a return.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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