News Analysis: Successful summit still possible despite latest terror slayings

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JERUSALEM — It is hard to imagine that Israeli and Palestinian leaders — despite the latest terrorist killings and the wide gaps that remain — will walk out of this week's Washington-area summit without producing an agreement.

If either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat remain stubborn over details and refuse to reach a long-delayed agreement, the problems they will be creating for President Clinton may well be reciprocated.

To be sure, Clinton is wounded by his own problems. But he certainly could exact a price on whoever thwarts his drive for a much-needed foreign policy success.

The outlook in Jerusalem, therefore, is that this time the moment of truth is finally at hand, at least in terms of the further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank.

With the size of the pullback — 13 percent — no longer in dispute, the negotiators, who were slated to begin meeting yesterday, will be focusing on the security aspects of their evolving accord.

The good will hopefully being fostered in the relative seclusion of the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland may help restore at least a modicum of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Whether the agreement they are expected to reach will be carried out smoothly is less likely, in the eyes of many observers, given the many pitfalls and setbacks that can arise during its three-month implementation period.

Focusing on the security issue, Netanyahu told reporters after meeting with Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan on Wednesday that he would go "a long way" toward negotiating an agreement if the Palestinians take steps to crack down on terrorism.

Netanyahu's visit to Jordan came a day after a suspected terrorist attack near Jerusalem killed one Israeli and wounded another.

After the attack, Netanyahu's office released a statement saying "there is absolutely no chance at this stage of signing an agreement" at the summit.

The prime minister also issued stern comments last Friday in the wake of a fatal stabbing of a female soldier in the Jordan Valley.

Her attacker — labeled a Palestinian terrorist by the Israeli government — was shot in the legs by a soldier who witnessed the incident. The attacker was placed under guard at a hospital.

With a special sense for political timing, Netanyahu combined a statement of outrage over the soldier's killing with a formal announcement that Ariel Sharon, champion of the hard-line camp, would become the new foreign minister and would be accompanying him to the summit.

The appointment, approved by the cabinet on Tuesday, is seen as a masterstroke designed to sow division and discomfort among the political right, which has been breathing fire and brimstone in advance of the summit.

In what appears as another attempt to defuse the right, Netanyahu last week designated the West Bank settlement of Ariel as a city. At a ceremony there last Friday, he sought to soothe the settler community with a vow to expand existing settlements.

"We are building and will continue to build," he said, adding that the city of Ariel would "be part of Israel in any final-status agreement in the future."

In the days before Wye, Netanyahu seemed confident that he had taken the steps needed to shore himself up against any possible threats from the political right.

Adding to his confidence is the clear signal from the Labor leadership that, if an agreement is signed at Wye, Labor will make up for any defections in the coalition ranks when the agreement comes up for Knesset approval.

The Labor "safety net" is not open-ended; it will remain in effect only as long as the implementation period lasts.

Looking beyond that, Netanyahu's domestic political strategy is clear.

It is based on opinion polls showing that a solid majority of Israelis want the redeployment agreement to be concluded and the peace process to continue.

If the right carries out its threat, once Labor's support is withdrawn and brings down his government, Netanyahu will run in early elections as a center-of-the-road leader with a proven record of tough negotiation but eventual agreement with the Arab side.

And if the right backs down, Netanyahu will be greatly strengthened both by the agreement itself and by his having faced down his domestic political critics.

Seasoned observers warn, though, that this no-lose scenario could be marred by the restless personality of Sharon, who may harbor the ambition to become prime minister.