President Clinton turned delicate talks into a high-risk, high-speed haggle

'Make no mistake, for all the grand words, this "process" is about playing hardball Middle-East style'

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The suitcases were barely packed at the Camp David summit before the villain of the piece - the wrecker of the talks - had been cast in his role and identified before the outside world.

The suitcases were barely packed at the Camp David summit before the villain of the piece - the wrecker of the talks - had been cast in his role and identified before the outside world.

Just after the summit had been officially pronounced dead, Bill Clinton calmly, but unequivocally, made it clear that he felt the bulk of the blame should be laid on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat. The US president's friend and ally Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, had showed "courage, vision and an understanding of the historic importance of this moment", he told a press conference. By contrast, Mr Arafat, had... well, he had moved his position, but less than the Israelis.

To a Western world which was taught for so long to view Arafat, the Palestinian revolutionary with the funny headdress, as a terrorist, it was an explanation that was easily embraced. Nice, kind Mr Barak, man of peace. Nasty, unhelpful, unreconstructed Mr Arafat.

Mr Clinton was, of course, tired and bitterly disappointed having seen his efforts of the last fortnight, produce nothing for him to brandish at the waiting public beyond a vague five-point statement about the principles governing future talks, and the mutual willingness to go on trying. His decision to single out Mr Arafat may also be intended as a coded reminder to the Palestinians that they can expect to get no more US aid, or recognition, if they go ahead with plans unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state in September. But it was unfair and dishonest, and paid no heed to the basic fact that Israel, as the conquering power, holds most of the cards, while the Palestinians, a defeated people, do not.

Why did Mr Clinton not also attribute blame to the summit's ridiculously ambitious ground rules? He went into Camp David knowing that this would be his last shot at sealing an historic peace deal which would establish him as a president whom history would remember more for his successes in foreign policy than for his tawdry sexual exploits. With time running out, he decided to go for broke - by supporting an effort to secure a comprehensive agreement.

The result was that the summit was conducted under conditions that sharply increased the odds of failure. These stated that in the absence of an overall agreement no party would be bound by any proposal that was discussed - or agreed - during the talks. It was to be all or nothing.

The result, or course, was nothing. No framework agreement, no partial deal - with some issues (for instance, West Bank territory) sealed, and others (Jerusalem and its Old City) deferred. No smaller agreements, confirming the overdue third Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, or the release of Palestinian prisoners. Not even a specific timetable for future meetings (although a senior Palestinian negotiator told CNN yesterday that talks would resume on Sunday).

These rules may not have been directly of his making - the Americans point out that it was the Israelis and the Palestinians who established a 13 September deadline for an overall agreement. Israeli reports suggest that it was Arafat who rejected an offer by Clinton to put the Jerusalem issue aside for future negotiation. The Palestinians insisted on "now or never".

But Mr Clinton, as mediator, bears considerable responsibility for allowing them to turn extremely delicate negotiations into a high-risk, high-speed haggle. He allowed his ambition to interfere with the immensely complicated process of settling an ancient conflict that can probably only be solved by advancing one inch, one small agreement, at a time.

Mr Clinton sought to console himself by talking about the progress made on "profound and complex questions that long had been considered off-limits". This is surely true, even though it does not square with the American and Israeli post-summit spin, which maintained that Arafat refused to budge an inch on the biggest "off-limit" question of all: Jerusalem. Mr Clinton's words also suggest that he believes that, despite the all-or-nothing clause, some of this progress can be quietly carried through to future talks, when the post-summit recriminations and acrimony die away.

This is being highly optimistic. There is little doubt that there was some real headway in some areas - but will it stick? Ehud Barak is a ruthless negotiator at the best of times. He has carried on building Jewish settlements on the West Bank in contradiction to all the rules of the UN resolutions while presenting himself as a sympathetic and flexible "concession" maker.

He is also operating in a highly restrictive political environment, because of the demands of the right-wing elements in the frail coalition that he is likely now to cobble together in order to limp on in office.

The taboo of talking about sovereignty over Jerusalem - an issue that arouses fierce passions throughout the Arab and Jewish worlds - has been broken by Camp David. What pressures will the hardline opponents to sharing the Holy City exert on Mr Barak next time he sets off for the mountains of Maryland? And what will the pressures be on Mr Arafat, who was yesterday basking in the unfamiliar sunshine of Arab approval for having refused to give in to Israel.

At his press conference just after the talks folded, the Israeli leader was at pains to stress that all the positions put forward by Israel during the 14-day marathon were now "invalid" and "null and void" because of the summit's failure to produce a comprehensive agreement. His remarks were chiefly to protect himself from assault by the Israeli right-wing, which will accuse him of making lasting concessions to the Palestinians.

But he may also actually mean it - at least, in some cases. It is already clear that Mr Barak is capable of tearing up past proposals and replacing them with new, even tougher ones - witness, his general "modus operandi" of building on Arab land while negotiating over its return.

In the cautious language of the Camp David statement, the two sides have formally agreed to "understand the importance of avoiding unilateral actions that prejudice the outcome of negotiations" - a reference to Israeli settlement-building as well as a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state.

Grand words. But, make no mistake, this "process" is about playing hardball Middle-East style. Past agreements have been broken. Next time these two men meet, there could be even more Jewish homes on the West Bank, even more "facts on the ground", even more "red lines".

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