Clinton says U.S. will aid peace efforts

Arafat at White House to discuss Mideast talks

April 21, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday that Washington will play a more hands-on role in the next phase of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, beginning later this month, but he warned that both sides must start making the difficult compromises needed for a final agreement.

Visiting the White House about a week after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was there, Arafat met for almost three hours with Clinton.

"There is a very positive dynamic," a senior Clinton administration official said after the meeting. "Both sides [in the Middle East dispute] are seriously addressing the key issues."

The official said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who have completed two rounds of talks at Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, will resume the discussions this month in the Middle East. U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis B. Ross will be at the table for the negotiations, playing a more active role than he did in the previous rounds.

Barak and Arafat agreed to join the talks if they show substantial progress, the official said. He said Clinton is ready to participate when necessary. But when asked about an early Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit, the official said, "We're not there yet."

Despite taking a more active role, Washington has no intention of trying to dictate a solution, the official said. "It remains for the parties themselves to reach agreement," he said.

The Palestinians have been calling for greater participation by Washington, whereas Barak, at least until recently, had maintained that the Israelis and the Palestinians could reach agreement by themselves without much outside intervention. Barak told U.S. officials last week that he would acquiesce to an enhanced U.S. role.

But Washington's other message to Arafat was probably less welcome: that it is foolish to hold out for long-cherished goals and is instead time to cut a deal that both sides can live with, even if it falls far short of their aspirations.

In brief remarks to reporters just before his meeting with Arafat, Clinton said the differences between Israel and the Palestinians "are difficult, but I think they can be bridged."

With Arafat at his side, Clinton pledged that his administration "will do everything we can to help them and to minimize the difficulties and the risks involved." He said both sides must take risks to produce meaningful compromise but that those dangers "are not nearly as great as the risks and difficulties of not making a peace agreement."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, outlining Washington's objectives, said: "We would like to see a commitment from both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat to put their shoulders behind this process, be flexible, recognize they can't achieve 100 percent of their objectives, and authorize their negotiators to be creative in moving forward.

"We would be prepared to play a more involved role at the table with the Palestinians and the Israelis in the coming weeks and months."

U.S. officials were encouraged by the atmosphere established by the back-to-back visits by Barak and Arafat. But they warned that very little time is left if the Israelis and the Palestinians intend to meet their self-imposed deadline of completing a treaty resolving the most difficult issues in a half-century of animosity by mid-September.

The official who briefed reporters after the White House meeting said Clinton "is very encouraged by the attitude and the ideas and the willingness to tackle the hard issues."

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