Both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have accepted invitations to a Washington summit to start next Tuesday. The invitations came after months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Madeline Albright and telephone calls by the president over the Fourth of July weekend.
"There are no easy answers and certainly no painless ones and therefore there is clearly no guarantee of success," the president said as he announced the summit.
At the talks, the two sides will try to resolve vexing issues, like the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas and whether Israel would withdraw from all the territory it took over in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Negotiations between lower-level representatives of Israel and the Palestinians have hit a stalemate on those issues.
"To remain stalled is no longer an option," said Mr. Clinton. "If the parties do not seize this moment, there will be more hostility, more bitterness and perhaps, more violence."
The president suggested the talks could be finished in "a couple of days," but others think that timetable is wildly optimistic. The experts think the negotiations could continueon and offfor months.
However, a senior Clinton administration official tells CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller that the president is convening the summit despite those obstacles on the grounds that "we judge the risk of action less than the risk of inaction."
The risks of the peace gamble are great. Analyst Alan Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the summit "does fly in the face of traditional conventional wisdom about foreign policy."
"Once you go to the presidential level there's no recourse," Makovsky said. "If this doesn't work, the thing has failed."
But in the complex arena of peace negotiations, personalities play a powerful role, and each of three men who'll be at the table next week faces the end of his time as a peacemaker.
Barak has struggled over the past month to keep his one-year-old governing majority intact.
Late Wednesday, two parties in the coalitionInterior Minister Natan Sharansky's Israel B'Aliya party and the National Religious Party, which together hold nine seats quit Barak's government to protest the summit.
Their departures appeared to leave Barak's government with only 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
President Clinton says
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Mr. Clinton has barely six months left in office and wants to finish the process begun with the 1993 handshake between Israel's late leader, Yitzhak Rabin, and Arafat. The president, hoping to burnish his legacy, would like to broker an agreement similar to the 1978 Camp David accords, the highlight of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
Much as the landscape of the Middle East was altered by the deaths of Jordan's King Hussein in 1999 and Syrian President Hafez al Assad last month, it could change dramatically after Barak, Arafat and Clinton exit the equation.
Yet the sense of desperation surrounding the talks may increase the danger.
"Our political calendar should not be what drives this," warned Peter Rodman of the Nixon Center. "Negotiations as important as this should not be either slowed down artificially or speeded-up artificially."
The object of the summit will be to hammer out a framework for a peace treaty.
Mideast peace negotiators have been hoping to get an agreement before September 13, the date on which Arafat has said he will declare a Palestinian state if the negotiations have not been conclusive.
Ironically, the two sides could not even agree on whether the summit was a good idea.
"This is undoubtedly an important moment in the history of the attempt to solve the conflict between us and the Palestinians," Barak told reporters at the Israeli embassy in Paris, commenting in Hebrew. "I will take my place at the head of our delegation to Camp David with a heavy feeling of responsibility."
But Arafat's chief negotiator, Ahmed Korei, predicts the summit will be a failure. Korei explains why, saying "the Israeli position is known and will not change, and the Palestinian position is clear and it, too, will not change."
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