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Can Mideast Deal Still Be Done?

The Clinton Administration's diplomatic exercise for July, aka the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David ended more than three weeks ago. Thirteen days of ofen intense talks between Israelis, Palestinians and Americans concluded with no agreement being reached.

Middle East analysts, journalists who covered the talks, and editorial writers have not cut the negotiators much slack. "Failure" was the word favored by most. Some said "collapse." Occasionally you could find an analyst who said "talks end, but don't fail." Optimism was not the centerpiece of most of the analysis.

Never mind. The Middle East peace process is not dead. There is time for at least one more major push, and the preliminary moves have already begun. Contacts have been resumed between senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Ambassador Dennis Ross, President Clinton's chief negotiator, will be in Israel and the West Bank for talks with the parties.

The Israeli press is already printing stories - denied by the State Department - that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will be in the region around the end of August or in early September. And both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat are expected in New York City in early September to speak to the United Nations General Assembly.

Ambassador Ross, speaking to the Seeds of Peace youth group this week at the State Department, said something "profound" happened at Camp David. What he meant was both Israelis and Palestinians moved from their original positions on all the issues before them, including the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees. Specific proposals with give and take on some of the issues, especially Jerusalem, occurred for the first time.

State Dept. Issues Warning
The State Department is warning Americans in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip of "an increased possibility for terrorist attacks" in those areas.

While it said there is no reason to believe there is a specific threat directed against Americans, all Americans there should be more careful about security.

Officials suggest travelers be more alert to their surroundings and report suspicious activity to police. They should also avoid public buses and exercise caution in the vicinity of bus stops and crowded areas.

The department did not explain why it issued the wrning.
Source: AP

"We saw leaders that had the weight of history on their shoulders," Ross said, referring to Barak and Arafat.

Answering a question, Ross reminded the teens that President Clinton has said he's ready to get the parties together again "if there's a willingness to make decisions."

Conventional wisdom in Washington says Camp David failed because Arafat was unwilling to make key decisions, especially on Jerusalem. One well-informed U.S. diplomat says that "Barak, in the end, was ready to make decisions and Arafat, for whatever reasons, was not."

What was behind Arafat's indecision is still a debatable question. Did he not like the deal offered or did he make a tactical calculation that he could get a better deal down the road, knowing there is time for another summit?

Was the Palestinian leader unsure of the support he would have from other Arab leaders on the question of Jerusalem? Or, as some have suggested, is Arafat simply incapable of actually making the really tough decisions? Even those who have dealt with the 72-year-old Palestinian leader are not entirely confident they understand the reasoning behind his decision making.

In the wake of Camp David, both Barak and Arafat have traveled to world capitals to gain support for their positions. Barak has also tried to increase his political base at home.

One of the more important results of this whirlwind diplomacy is that the Palestinian leader has not received as much support as he would have liked for the possibility of his declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally on Sept. 13.

The diplomatic wheel is very much trying to realign itself for another summit. There is a little time - perhaps four to six weeks - but probably not more than that to get a deal.

In the meantime, there's a sign on Ross' desk in his seventh floor office at the State Department, which remains to be proven wrong. The sign says simply what has proven to be almost incomprehensively difficult: "It Can Be Done."

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