Israelis and Palestinians differed on much - but shared camaraderie

JERICHO, West Bank - Beyond the exhilaration over broken taboos and the heartbreak of an opportunity missed, there were the long walks in the woods, the fights over the golf carts, the obscenity blurted in exasperation and the old Jewish joke that kept the Palestinians laughing for days.

Back in their shared, parched land, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators recalled their 15 days at Camp David - a ''five-star prison,'' one called it - and delivered mixed reviews in interviews with The Associated Press.

Palestinians said they were cheered because, having seen the Israelis come farther than they believed possible on tough-nut issues like Jerusalem and refugees, they believe only a little nudging will push them all the way.

Israelis said they were skeptical, because they had showed the Palestinians the maximum they could give - and it still didn't lure Yasser Arafat into making a deal.

''I don't think our negotiations will ever be the same after Camp David,'' said an optimistic Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator.

''Once again, the Arabs blew it,'' said a frustrated Dan Meridor, a close adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Each side agreed that long-standing taboos were broken, but who broke which taboo depended on who was remembering.

Meridor, a former justice minister, lauded the Palestinians for being the first Arab negotiators not to insist on getting all the land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

''The understanding was that if there was to be a border, it is not going to be the '67 border,'' but rather one that included Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Meridor said.

Nabil Shaath, Arafat's planning minister, said the Israelis breached two major taboos - by agreeing to discuss Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, and by discussing the return of refugees created by Israel's 1948 independence war.

The Palestinians had been skeptical that the Israelis were ready to discuss such core issues. What they saw ''amazed'' them, Shaath said, right down to the minutest details, including where in the walled Old City Arafat's compound would be situated.

Meridor said such ideas probably went beyond what the Israeli public would tolerate - but it was worthwhile talking about them if only to find out how serious the Palestinians were.

''It is always better to know the reality around you,'' he said at his Jerusalem home, a 10-minute walk from the walls of the Old City. ''We know, unfortunately, after the last two weeks that we have no partner.''

The Palestinians, he said, insisted on a right of return for the refugees and absolute sovereignty throughout east Jerusalem, instead of the limited autonomy offered by the Israelis.

''On the last day of the conference, one of the Palestinian team leaders said to one of us, he was very satisfied with the communique that we agreed upon,'' Meridor recalled. The communique committed to little more than continued negotiations.

''Our guy turned to the Palestinian and said something I cannot repeat - how can I put it: 'You were offered a state and you are very happy with a communique. You know where you can put the communique.'''

Such tensions were inevitable, the Palestinians said.

''We had moments when we felt we had broken hearts, we had moments when we exchanged accusations,'' Erekat said from his office in Jericho where - like many of the others - he was enjoying his first day after a full night's sleep.

Each side had a designated joker to defuse tensions - Shaath for the Palestinians, and Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein.

It helped that many negotiators have known each other since talks were launched in the early 1990s, Shaath said.

Some also know each other as adversaries. Danny Yatom, a former army commander and intelligence chief, named as favorite Palestinian negotiators Mohammed Dahlan and Hassan Asfour - both veterans of Israeli prisons who speak fluent Hebrew.

Negotiators tended to gravitate to one another during ''down time'' as well, sharing meals and journeys into the verdant woods, sometimes on foot, sometimes on much-in-demand golf carts. ''Some got hold of a golf cart before others could get their hands on it,'' Meridor said.

Only Barak and Arafat tended to keep their distance, running negotiations through others.

Both sides credited President Clinton with creating the relaxing atmosphere - he would stroll into cabins unannounced, and set a dress code of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers.

And both sides were awed by Clinton's command of the issues.

''President Clinton knew neighborhoods in the Old City of Jerusalem, knew the names of the neighborhoods surrounding the walls of Jerusalem,'' Erekat recalled.

The tension-breaking joke, about a broken-down horse, came after the Israelis rejected all three Palestinian demands on refugees - acknowledgment of responsibility, agreement to a right of return and establishment of a compensation fund.

''Then why are we here?'' blurted Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo.

The tense silence was broken by Rubinstein, who recounted the tale of the fellow in the old country who would run Jews between two villages on his horse-drawn cart. Except for the first uphill leg of the journey, he would ask the passengers to walk - ''the horse is old, the cart is too heavy.'' Down the hill was no different: ''The horse is old, the momentum might kill him.'' The third part, he encouraged them to walk ''because the countryside is so beautiful.''

Paying his fare, one passenger remarked: ''I understand why I'm here - I have business here. I understand why you're here - you own the cart. But tell me - why is the horse here?''

The room broke up in laughter, and the joke became a Camp David favorite.

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