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Friday, 21 July, 2000, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Tricks and traps on road to peace
Barak pushes Arafat as Clinton watches
All good fun, but jostling at the door is nothing to that inside
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

We cannot know what has really been going on under the news blackout at the Middle East peace summit, but from nearly a quarter of a century of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, we can hazard a pretty good guess.

Traditionally - and paradoxically given the enmity which informs the conflict - the atmosphere at Middle East summits and peace talks is usually warm and respectful.

In the spirit of compromise, you will accept my position!

Mr Rubinstein Snr
But brinkmanship, grandstanding and diversionary ploys have all played a major role in past talks between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as with Syria and Egypt.

Although the stakes are higher than ever, the 2000 Camp David meeting appears to be no different, with threats to walk out, stern arm-twisting letters exchanged, and "compromises" announced which scarcely stand up to scrutiny.

Camp David I

In the opening chapter of the Middle East peace process, when Israel and Egypt met at Camp David in 1978, threats to walk out were a regular occurrence.

President Carter set the tone by telling Menahem Begin he was about to break up the summit and announce to the American people that Israel was to blame for its intransigence in negotiations.

But when Egypt's President Sadat said he was packing his bags on Day 11 of the 12-day marathon, Jimmy Carter told him that it would "mean an end to the relationship between the US and Egypt".

Since improving that relationship was Mr Sadat's main objective, he stayed put and a deal emerged soon afterwards, with little change in the Israeli position.

'Spirit of compromise'

Ghassan Khatib, representing the Palestinians in bilateral talks in Washington before the emergence of the secret Oslo channel in 1993, recalls that the ice was never really broken with his Israeli counterparts.

Summit trial
Camp David 1978
Egypt, Israel make peace
Oslo 1992-93
Israel talks to PLO
Wye 1998
Oslo renegotiated
Shepherdstown 2000
Syria, Israel get nowhere
"But after a while we did start to laugh at (Israeli delegation leader) Elyakim Rubinstein's jokes," Mr Khatib admits.

At one particularly tense moment, Israel's now attorney general got a laugh by saying: "Why don't we resolve this like my mother and father used to. He'd say to her 'In the spirit of compromise, you will accept my position'!"

Compromise at Washington was a rare commodity, but Palestinian negotiator Yezid al-Sayigh says that in the flush of Oslo in 1993, a true sense of shared endeavour, trust and commitment emerged between the two sides.

He also says disagreements between the Israeli and Palestinian teams could be avoided because Yasser Arafat, with his paternalist leadership style, liked to "sort out" controversial issues himself. This kept histrionics in the negotiating chamber to a minimum.

Ups and downs

The roller coaster technique returned under Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The right-winger famously ordered his delegation to pack their bags at the Wye talks in October 1999 in an (unsuccessful) attempt to pressurise President Clinton into releasing the spy, Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted in the US in 1985.

Another tactic available to the Israelis has been to try to play off the different negotiating tracks - Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese - against one another.

This would have been a more useful ploy if the Syrian track had not spent so much time in deadlock.

Indeed, the current freeze in Syrian-Israeli talks began at Shepherdstown in January 2000, after a tactical move went badly wrong.

Someone on the Israeli delegation leaked a draft of the agreement, portraying how far things had gone the Israelis' way - without mentioning the Syrian gains.

The Syrians walked out and have stayed out ever since.

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