Despite this huge setback Israel and Palestine must find a way to keep talking

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In the end, as all along seemed probable, the gap was narrow but unbridgeable. From the outset, the future of Jerusalem had threatened to be the deal-breaker in the Israeli-Palestinian summit, which collapsed without agreement at Camp David yesterday. Often theatrics are part of a truly crucial Middle East negotiation. Statements of the failure from the White House, the summoning by participants of their motorcades for the airport, have been part and parcel of the brinkmanship process. This time alas, they do not seem to be the prelude to yet one more desperate push for a breakthrough.

In the end, as all along seemed probable, the gap was narrow but unbridgeable. From the outset, the future of Jerusalem had threatened to be the deal-breaker in the Israeli-Palestinian summit, which collapsed without agreement at Camp David yesterday. Often theatrics are part of a truly crucial Middle East negotiation. Statements of the failure from the White House, the summoning by participants of their motorcades for the airport, have been part and parcel of the brinkmanship process. This time alas, they do not seem to be the prelude to yet one more desperate push for a breakthrough.

Summits can teeter on the edge for only so long. For 15 days, most of those in the presence of Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat have been seeking to reach a "final status" agreement to cap the peace process which began with that unforgettable handshake between Mr Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin seven summers ago. The two sides seemed to have been inching towards a deal on the borders of the future Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the future of settlements in the occupied territories. Differences remained on the "right of return" of the 4 million Palestinian refugees whose families once lived in what is now Israel. But on Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their historic, rightful capital, there has been no understanding whatsoever.

In fact, each leader's hands were tied. Mr Barak apparently offered some form of Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem, but neither sufficient nor precise enough to satisfy Mr Arafat and - more importantly - protect the Palestinian leader from accusations by his own people of a sell-out. But with his own governing coalition in ruins, the Israeli Prime Minister felt he could go no further.

But if failure this time was predictable, its consequences are no less alarming. Inevitably recriminations will fly. The Israelis will blame Mr Arafat for a pigheaded failure to accept the best terms his people are ever likely to receive. The Palestinians will fume at the Israelis for delivering a package which they knew did not meet the minimum requirements of their negotiating partner. President Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will also come under fire for not having done their homework, and failing to appreciate the colossal symbolic importance of Jerusalem to both parties.

The immediate need now is for cool heads. Just possibly, the breakdown will prove temporary, and a fresh summit can be called before the 13 September deadline for a peace treaty. Indeed, before this last Camp David marathon began, many experts predicted that it would be but the first act of a two-act drama. If that is not the case, however, the prospects are grim.

All too probably, Mr Arafat will conclude that after so many disappointments and false dawns since 1993, he has no choice but to carry out his oft-voiced threat to unilaterally declare a sovereign Palestinian state. To which the Israelis would surely and instantly reply by formally annexing West Bank land it currently occupies and by tightening still further its grip on Jerusalem. At this point every achievement since the first Camp David summit of 1978, which paved the way to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, would be in danger of unravelling. Somehow, the Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to keep talking.

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