More than 20 years after its first success in brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, the United States faces its most difficult task in Middle East mediation when it brings Israel and the Palestinians together this week in a high-risk summit aimed at forging Camp David II.
While the first Camp David in 1978 resulted in Israeli-Egyptian peace, neither it nor the subsequent deal between the Jewish state and Jordan have even approached solving the Palestinian question, by far the most complex, emotional and divisive hurdle to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
After seven years of negotiating -- often marked by bitter recrimination and accusations -- Israel and the Palestinians enter the upcoming talks still deeply at odds over the most critical issues to reaching peace.
But as the politically weakened Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the aging Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the lameduck US President Bill Clinton prepare to meet, it is clear each is approaching an endgame.
"This summit is an inevitable gamble," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, acknowledging the urgency with which it is seen.
The most optimistic scenario, however, would be a "major" but not "comprehensive agreement" that requires additional negotiations to complete, he said.
Though comparisons between this week's gathering and the initial Camp David summit, in which then-US president Jimmy Carter cajoled an agreement out of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, are inevitable, many warn against them.
"People have to be careful with saying this is another Camp David," said Richard Haas, the vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"Arafat is not in the same position as president Sadat and Barak is not anything like as strong as prime minister Begin," he said, referring to Arafat's not being the leader of a recognized state and Barak's political problems at home.
"You've also got tougher issues," Haas noted.
The number of people to be affected by an agreement, which will necessarily involve areas of high population density, is much greater than those affected by the Israeli-Egyptian pact, he said.
And the land itself, while not as strategic as the Sinai peninsula, is packed with potent religious symbolism, he added.
Still, this week's meeting is a result of the "step-by-step" diplomatic approach created by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger when the United States began its intensive efforts to bring peace to the Middle East in the 1970s.
Some of the groundwork has been prepared in interim agreements -- the 1998 Wye River deal and its successor, last year's Sharm-el-Sheik pact -- though significant portions of each remain unimplemented.
And just as in 1978, both sides at the table are unlikely to ever reach peace on their own, according to William Quandt, a former official at the US National Security Council who was intimately involved in the first Camp David summit.
"Each party saw merit in resolving the dispute through negotiations under American auspices," said Quandt, now a professor at the University of Virginia, of the Egyptian-Israeli talks.
"But the two sides still had fundamentally different approaches to peace (and) left to themselves, they would probably not have found their way to agreement."
However, a formal peace accord between Israel and Egypt had to wait for several months after Camp David and few believe this summit will produce the comprehensive pact sought.
US success or failure in the Maryland hills this time will be judged on how high the president and his team hold the bar, Haas said.
"The key decision for Mr Clinton and his lieutenants will be, at what point to give up on the goal of complete success and to switch to the more modest aim of a framework agreement," he said -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
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