Mideast talks reveal new rifts between Israel, Palestinians

Arafat questions Barak's commitment to peace, wants stronger U.S. role

June 16, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After more than three hours of talks with President Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat emerged from the White House yesterday to question Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's commitment to peace and to implore Clinton to assume a stronger role in the Middle East peace process.

A meeting that was supposed to ease the Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a Camp David-like peace summit this summer instead revealed new issues and fresh animosity.

White House officials began downplaying any possibility of a summit in the near future, saying that they would work toward a lower-stakes meeting to advance negotiations that appear frozen.

The State Department announced yesterday evening that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright would fly to the Middle East in about 10 days to try to jump-start the peace talks.

"I want to finish the job, and I'd like to see it finished on time," Clinton said.

Arafat's show of pique may have been motivated as much by diplomatic gamesmanship as by real frustration with the slow pace of negotiations. He is under increasing pressure from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to extract meaningful concessions from the Israelis.

Arafat reiterated his pledge to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state Sept. 13 if such an arrangement could not be reached by treaty

"Mr. Barak up to this moment lacks a desire to work with us in order to achieve a comprehensive lasting peace in the region," Arafat told reporters in Arabic.

Arafat said Barak had offered to release only three of the 1,600 Palestinian prisoners that he wants released from Israeli jails.

The issue of prisoners is a sensitive one for Arafat. Six Palestinians were killed and 1,000 wounded during clashes this month with Israeli soldiers over Israel's reluctance to free the inmates.

An Israeli diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Prime Minister Barak was elected on a mandate to push the peace process forward. He is determined to make the peace process work."

The diplomat cautioned against taking Arafat's belligerence at face value. "Ultimately, everyone wants this process to work," he said. "We're used to having these ups and downs in the process, and even an atmosphere of crisis projected. But if we keep on target, we'll get there."

Talks between the Palestinians and Israelis resumed this week in the Washington area, amid signs that a summit could be scheduled to clear the biggest remaining obstacles to peace: the size and shape of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees.

But before those issues could be tackled, the Palestinian delegation demanded that new ones be addressed first: a third pullback of Israeli troops in the West Bank, originally scheduled to begin June 23; the release of Palestinian prisoners; and the establishment of a second road link between the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Arafat said Israel had agreed under previous peace accords to resolve the matters at which the Israelis are now balking.

Barak has insisted that those issues be addressed as part of a comprehensive peace settlement, and talks stumbled Wednesday after Israeli negotiators refused to discuss these "interim issues."

"The Palestinians are being reticent to tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute," the Israeli diplomat said. "This is indeed a pity, because if we succeed in moving forward on the core issues, the interim issues will become largely irrelevant."

Before his meeting with Arafat, Clinton had dismissed fears that the talks were near collapse. Afterward, White House aides were more circumspect, saying Clinton did not think the sides were close enough to warrant a summit.

Instead, the president might request a meeting of Arafat, Barak and himself to hash out how to put the talks on track. No timetable was set.

"This is a marathon, and we have a process in place to help the parties work towards the finish line," said P. J. Crowley, a White House spokesman.

Arafat clearly hopes that Clinton can help him pressure Barak into new concessions. While the Palestinian leader seethed about his Israeli counterpart, he lavished praise on the president, extending his "deepest appreciation to his tireless efforts."

But Crowley insisted that Clinton would not take sides. "This is not about pressure that we are putting on either the Palestinians or Israel," the spokesman said.

And Crowley defended Barak against Arafat's assertion that the Israeli prime minister was not serious about peace. "I don't think we have any quarrel with the firmness by which the leaders and their negotiating teams are working hard to see what can be done," he said.

In truth, Middle East experts say, both the Palestinians and the Israelis are racing against the clock. Arafat's promise to declare independence in September has created enormous political expectations among the Palestinians.

"Arafat has promised his people one too many times that this is going to happen, and the gap between him and his people is growing," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

On the other hand, Telhami said, Arafat knows that a unilateral declaration, without the force of a treaty behind it, would not win his people the legal and political recognition they crave.

Because of unrest in his Cabinet, Barak's hold on power grows shakier as the Palestinian territories become more unstable. That has emboldened Arafat to conclude that brinkmanship now could win concessions quickly, said David Schenker, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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