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Camp David II: What's At Stake?

Silvia Johnson, 41, left, is seen during her sentencing in Jefferson County Court, Monday, Nov. 14, 2005, in Golden, Colo. Johnson, who pleaded guilty to charges of throwing parties for high school boys where she supplied alcohol, drugs, and had sex with some, was sentenced Monday to 30 years in prison. Woman at right is not identified. (AP Photo/Kathryn Scott Osler, Pool)
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William Jefferson Clinton would like to be remembered as the man who brokered a final peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat would like an independent state called Palestine and be known as the "father of his country."

Ehud Barak's goal is to be remembered as the man who ended the 100-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, bringing comprehensive peace to the region.

It would be no surprise if a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony appeared in their dreams. So much for legacy. The first lesson one learns covering the Middle East is to never make predictions.

With that in mind, a reporter seeking insight was lucky to be told by a senior diplomat involved in the talks that "it's possible to get an agreement, but it won't be easy" -- perhaps the understatement of the week.

The pre-summit talk is over. President Clinton has spoken and so have his most senior negotiators. Anyone remotely interested could get their fill of sound bites from the Sunday talk shows, Monday morning network shows and the latest reporting from Jerusalem on the political crisis Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has left behind.

Every think tank in Washington which follows developments in the Middle East has had its experts analyze the positions of the parties going to Camp David II. Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen have been available to diplomatic reporters for background into each side's positions.

A few key points need to be kept in mind. Neither side will get everything it wants. Barak-Arafat of Camp David II are weaker leaders than Begin-Sadat of Camp David I. The issues the second time around are much more difficult and more emotional -- Jerusalem and refugees, for example -- than was the idea of returning the Sinai desert to Egypt.

That said, Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a participant in Camp David I says the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains "is the right place to make this important...effort." And though Barak has been the more eager participant, Arafat couldn't turn down the president's invitation because "Mr. Clinton has made him a full player" in the peace process over the last seven-and-a-half years.

How much can be accomplished is an open question. Mr. Clinton's persuasive powers will be put to the test, especially with Mr. Arafat, who is perceived by all to have the weakest hand. Very few analysts expect a final deal can be reached in the week or so Mr. Clinton has before he's due to go to Asia for an economic conference.

"I think it's very difficult to imagine a complete, end of conflict, end of claim agreement with all issues wrapped up tightly in a bow," says Dr. Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At best, most observers predict some version of a so-called Framework Agreement which addresses all issues -- Jerusalem, territory, refugees and security -- to some extent, though imay not be able to cover every detail. A few pessimists note the talks could collapse, producing failure.

Both Arafat and Barak have political troubles back home. Prime Minister Barak's coalition is in shambles and he comes to the summit, in the words of a senior diplomat, "as a trapeze artist, flying through the air, hoping he can be caught" if he gets a deal he can sell to the Israeli public.

On the flip side, polling among Palestinians shows there is more backing for a peace deal generally than for Mr. Arafat personally, according to Prof. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland. Telhami also notes that "no matter what kind of agreement is reached... there will be strong opposition on both sides."

If the uphill struggle were not hard enough under current circumstances, the history of the Palestinians to gain statehood doesn't help either. There have been other opportunities, which for one reason or another have gone by the boards. So many, in fact, that former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban's once quipped, "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Accepting the best deal he can negotiate at Camp David takes on additional meaning for the aging Palestinian leader when you consider the words of a senior Israeli adviser to the prime minister, "Ehud Barak will be telling Yasser Arafat these are the best offers you'll get from an Israeli prime minister for a long time."

As President Clinton put it, if these problems were easy to solve, it would have been done by now.