Clinton has little to lose, compared to Barak, Arafat

No sooner had President Clinton announced this week's Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David than the pundits began spouting their sound-bite wisdom.

Among their conclusions: This is a high-risk diplomatic venture for all parties, and it is taking place only because Clinton is seeking to cap his foreign policy legacy with a big, headline-generating triumph.

Those ideas were repeated so frequently that they became part of this week's conventional wisdom.

There's only one problem: The conventional wisdom is wrong.

The summit is a real gamble for only two of the three primary participants. Clinton comes out a loser only if he commits some enormous diplomatic bumble.

And while the president wouldn't turn up his nose at a Nobel Prize, the evidence suggests that his urgency in pressing for the summit has more to do with harsh Middle Eastern realities than egocentric fantasies.

So the risk factor in this week's summit is skewed.

Yasser Arafat, for example, is taking more risks than Clinton. He remains caught in a three-way squeeze between Palestinian hardliners, Israeli red lines and his own foolhardy threats.

If the summit succeeds, it will be because he made concessions that fly in the face of his own bellicose demands and intemperate rhetoric. Arafat has done next to nothing to prepare his people for the realities of an agreement, and he could pay a stiff price for that failure if one is signed.

If the summit fails, he could be goaded into a unilateral statehood declaration that would put in jeopardy everything he has gained since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Barak is taking risks, too. Some of the risks he faces were evident last weekend when his coalition crumbled over his decision to travel to Camp David.

If a deal can be forged, Barak intends to put it to the test with Israeli voters, possibly coupled to new elections. His betting is that if a deal is on the table, voters will resoundingly approve it — and endorse his leadership in the process.

The polls show he could be right, but it's a desperate gamble, especially for a neophyte politician who has been less than adroit in steering through Israel's political minefields.

A failed summit could mean a return to widespread violence, a politically disastrous prescription for a leader who was elected on his promise to bring peace and security to a war-weary nation.

In contrast, the risks are barely measurable for Clinton, whose lame-duck status could be curiously liberating; political concerns will now not serve as a brake on his actions as mediator. If the summit flops, he will get credit for trying, despite the long odds. If it succeeds, he will go down in history as the man who, by sheer force of will, helped solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

But that doesn't mean Jewish right-wingers are correct when they charge he is driven primarily by his desire to be remembered for something more noble than his shenanigans with a White House intern.

In fact, Clinton has made Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement a top foreign policy priority since his term began in 1993; it is his biggest piece of unfinished business.

But the Sept. 13 final-status deadline and the growing threat of renewed violence have given that priority a new edge in recent months.

Clinton, aides say, sees a genuine window of opportunity in the Middle East, but also the likelihood it won't remain open for long.

He believes the summit has a chance because he has earned the trust of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, something no other president has done — and something his successor next January is unlikely to duplicate.

Barak's landslide election a year ago was a clear signal the Israeli people are ready for serious peacemaking, even if the details remain controversial.

Arafat is close to his lifelong dream of Palestinian statehood — so close that the betting here is that he may now be willing to accept the distasteful limitations that are inevitable if he gains it through negotiations with Israel.

Arafat's bad health and declining public support and Barak's ongoing political woes have added to the feeling that it's make-or-break time for the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Congress is a factor in the administration's calculations, as well.

Sentiment is growing on Capitol Hill against active U.S. intervention in world hotspots. Today, a new Camp David deal might be sufficient to win congressional support for the new aid an agreement is expected to require. Tomorrow, it could be a tougher sell.

Clinton has good reason to wonder how the history books will treat him.

But it's the Middle Eastern political and diplomatic alignment that drove him to press for a Camp David summit, not a crass desire to boost his reputation on the back of a vulnerable Israel.