ON, OFF, AND ON AGAIN; Progress towards an agreement was tortuous, and it has further damaged President Clinton's reputation. By Andrew Marshall
IT WAS supposed to be an affair of relaxed walks in the fields and evenings by the fire, casual clothes and barbecues by the river. The Middle East peace talks, America said, would be an opportunity not just to strike much-needed bargains between Israelis and Palestinians, but to warm the atmosphere a little. As it turned out, by the end of the talks, the atmosphere at the Wye River Conference Centre in Maryland was positively flammable. And Bill Clinton, the barbecue chef, was left with singed eyebrows.

Ten days ago the gathering started with high hopes and warm words from Mr Clinton, the host, facilitator, referee and chief bystander, at a dinner in the Carmichael Farm. The President was burnishing his credentials as a peacemaker who helped end fighting in Bosnia and brokered a settlement in Northern Ireland. Now he would bring together Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and incarnation of Israel's hard-line, with Yasser Arafat, whose idea of casual apparently did not extend beyond military fatigues.

The talks were supposed to end last Monday. International politics and human nature being what they are, it was only then that the serious talking began. If a sense of urgency had been lacking, that changed quickly. The day opened with news of a hand grenade attack on a bus station in Beersheba, threatening to blow the negotiations out of the water.

MR NETANYAHU was woken to be told of the news in the early hours. As day broke, the Israelis refused to talk about any- thing except security, saying that the attack just proved their point: they could not withdraw from another square inch of land while they were under attack.

The American team mounted an intensive effort to keep the talks on the road. They had long known that Mr Netanyahu would be the toughest to convince of the need to deal. By Monday evening, the US was ready to start to work on persuading both sides of the virtues of its solution to the security problem, and a meeting was called between Mr Clinton, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat at the Wye Woods dining room. The real business could begin.

The essentials of the American proposal were simple, and had been so for months. The Israelis would withdraw from a further 13 per cent of the land they occupied in the West Bank. In return, Palestinians would carry out a CIA-designed programme to strengthen security and clamp down on radical groups. During Monday night they came to an idea of what was needed, well short of agreement, but with the landscape surveyed.

The President flew in again on Tuesday, hoping to nudge things towards closure; King Hussein of Jordan arrived at the Carmichael Farm; and hopes were high that the evening would see another critical meeting between Netanyahu, Arafat and the President, the precursor to a final deal.

The President met Yasser Arafat in the afternoon in the library of the Houghton House to gauge Palestinian views. But that was the easy part: the Palestinians had all but signed up. A meeting with Mr Netanyahu promised to be far tougher. Israeli technical officials had said the US security plan was acceptable, but some key areas could only be cleared by politicians. Mr Netanyahu's kitchen cabinet were all present to keep his spine stiff: Natan Sharansky, minister and former Russian human rights leader; Ariel Sharon, a military hawk turned foreign minister; and Yitzhak Mordechai, the more moderate defence minister.

The meeting with Netanyahu was set for 10.15pm, five hours later than expected. It lasted three hours, well into Wednesday morning, and no three- way meeting followed. Mr Netanyahu asked the US to demand more from the Palest- inians, changes to the Palestinian charter, more arrests, more detailed expressions of what they would do to clamp down on radical groups. Mr Clinton said he was satisfied with what the Palestinians had agreed to. The hard decisions now had to be made by the Israelis, he said. Wednesday was Mr Netan- yahu's birthday, and his present from Washington was a diplomatic demarche. America was preparing to table a deal, putting it to both sides to approve or disapprove. They were threatening to outflank the Israelis: if they refused to deal, they would clearly be the ones who had wrecked the meeting.

The negotiations spilled over into the public realm, ripping apart the (largely fictitious) media blackout that was supposed to surround the talks. An Israeli spokesman was dispatched to the press centre to talk about the huge problems that lay ahead. The Israelis said they were threatening to leave, by 5pm, if their demands were not met and they did not get a detailed security plan. The talks were drifting towards chaos. A US team went to the River House and saw the Israelis piling up their luggage.

At 10 o'clock on Wednesday night this melodrama came to an end with the delivery of a short note. "The Prime Minister of Israel has instructed his delegation to continue the talks," it said stiffly. "The Prime Minister values the efforts invested by President Clinton and the Secretary of State to advance the goal of peace." Somebody had blinked, and it looked as if it was the Israelis. The deal had been explained again, the Americans said, but there had been no substantive changes.

The US team was furious and frustrated. After all, this deal was supposed to have been done months ago. Israel had levered multiple concessions out of Mr Arafat. Few demands were made of Israel, and the CIA was to be leased out as the locally hired security force to guarantee Israel's security.

But it looked as if progress might be possible, and the Americans moved the process into an endgame. On Thursday, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat settled down on a couch in the Wye Woods dining room to talk face to face. It seemed, by nightfall, as if everything was coming together, and the principals withdrew to close a deal. Just a few topics had to be finalised. A signing ceremony was set for 11.30 the next morning at the White House. All the toughest issues - a revision of the Palestinian covenant, extradition of Palestinians to Israel, the release of prisoners from Israeli jails - were settled.

But before the morning news had finished, the deal was collapsing over an issue that had never been discussed publicly: the release of the American Jona- than Pollard, imprisoned 12 years ago for betraying America by leaking secrets to Israel.

The Israelis said this had been part of the deal all along. What seems to have happened is that Mr Clinton had agreed, discreetly, that Mr Pollard's release might be on the cards, and that Egypt would release another spy, Azzam Azzam. Israel had levered this concession during the week. Perhaps it had been the card played on Wed- nesday night that kept the Israelis on board. For Mr Sharon it seems to have been a vital goal.

BUT it was to be discreet, and the Israelis were demanding that it be public, and that it be now. That had not been part of the deal, as far as the US was concerned: it would embarrass the US if it became known the hosts had to pay for the party. Mr Pollard was regarded by the military, intelligence and diplomatic community as a traitor of the worst kind.

But then perhaps that was the point. Mr Clinton was suddenly looking not so clever. The under-the-table deal he had struck was out in the open, and Mr Netanyahu had scored a point over him. He had also shown that the Americans would never dare to push the Israelis into a corner.

The President was puffy-eyed from lack of sleep as he presented the final deal in the White House on Friday afternoon, but full of support for peace. Except on one point where he was so taciturn that you might have thought he was reading from a pre-arranged text, and that point concerned Mr Pollard. "I have agreed to review this matter seriously at the Prime Minister's request," the President said. "I have made no commitment to the outcome of this review." He had, in the end, been outflanked.