Clinton heads to Camp David with sense of urgency, optimism
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The historic handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was nearly seven years ago, a reminder that the Middle East peace process has been President Clinton's constant focus -- and constant source of frustration.
"This is difficult. It is perhaps the most difficult of all the peace problems in the world," Clinton said last week in a preview of this week's Camp David summit between Arafat and Israel's current prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Beginning Tuesday at the Maryland presidential retreat, Clinton will seek to bridge the differences blocking a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. It is an admitted gamble by a president who, over the past seven-plus years, has made nearly 200 phone calls to heads of state to discuss the peace process, visited the Middle East region six times and hosted a handful of major meetings and summits in the United States.
"I think he has mastered the brief," said Middle East analyst Geoffrey Kemp. "He knows exactly what needs to be said, he is energized and I think he is the best possible person to strike a deal if Barak and Arafat are willing to compromise."
The president spent the past several days reading briefing papers on the major issues dividing the Israelis and Palestinians. Among the material he has prepared with is a book by Middle East peace expert Bill Quandt on the 1978 Camp David talks that resulted in the Egypt-Israeli peace accords.
"I've been studying," Clinton lightheartedly told supporters last week in Philadelphia. "Give me a test on some piece of land anywhere in Jerusalem or throughout Israel -- I know the answer. Ask me to draw a map of the West Bank in my sleep -- I can do it."
Jokes aside, it is experience that Clinton hopes will come in handy as he shuttles between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
State Department workers tape up a large Camp David Mideast Summit sign in the briefing room at the Thurmont Elementary School Tuesday, in Thurmont, Maryland.
"There is a great role for the president to play in suggesting bridging ideas, saying: 'Had you thought of it this way? If you got this, could you take less on that?' -- that sort of role, which is an extremely important role," said Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former assistant secretary of state for the Near East during the Reagan administration.
Clinton knows all too well this could be his last chance to break the impasse, so U.S. officials say the president will convene the talks with a sense of determination and urgency, and make the case that he, Barak and Arafat have invested too much in the peace process to allow this high-stakes summit to fail.
Reuters contributed to this report.