High stakes drive talks on Mideast

Barak, Arafat, Clinton engage in `serious' discussions

`The weight of history'

President evokes spirit of Camp David, calls for compromise

July 12, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

THURMONT - Calling on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak "to bring about a just and enduring end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," President Clinton convened a high-stakes summit at Camp David yesterday to try to make significant progress in the Middle East peace process before a crucial Sept. 13 deadline.

Both Barak and Arafat "feel the weight of history," Clinton said at the White House before leaving for the Catoctin Mountain presidential retreat yesterday morning. "But both, I believe, recognize this is a moment in history which they can seize."

The open-ended talks, the subject of a strict news blackout by the three delegations, began at noon with talks on the back porch of the president's cabin. Clinton met with Arafat for about 30 minutes, then Barak for about 45 minutes.

Afterward, Clinton escorted Arafat and Barak to the Laurel cabin, the main meeting site, putting an arm around each. Seated at a long table, the three were joined by about three dozen lieutenants for the first three-way meeting of the summit, presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

In the evening, Clinton met separately with Arafat and Barak, and the three delegations dined together at round tables inside the Laurel cabin, Lockhart said.

"The discussions have been serious," Lockhart said. The three leaders, he added, "indicated the importance of getting to work and getting to work quickly."

The leaders are trying to finish almost a decade of start-and-stop negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and to resolve a half-century of bloody confrontation between the two sides.

Barak is laboring under the additional burden of a fractured political alliance at home. Three right-wing Israeli parties have resigned from his governing coalition in the past week, saying the prime minister is preparing to concede too much to Arafat.

Barak now refers directly to the Israeli people for the authority to make peace with Arafat.

In an open letter published yesterday in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's top-selling newspaper, Barak said he has a clear mandate from the Israeli public to reach a peace agreement.

While years of talks between Israel and the Palestinians have produced the handover of some Israeli-held land to Palestinian control, no agreement has been reached on the core issues of Palestinian statehood, the right of return for refugees or the Palestinians' claim to East Jerusalem as their capital.

The sides had agreed to settle such issues by Sept. 13. Arafat has said he would unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian nation after that date - a move that would be extremely destabilizing to the region - if no permanent peace is in sight.

Yesterday, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi renewed the threat, speaking of Arafat's "commitment of establishing the state by Sept. 13, building institutions, and adopting the necessary steps and measures so we have a territorially viable democratic state this year."

By sequestering fewer than 50 Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. diplomats for intense, uninterrupted negotiations in the Maryland mountains, Clinton is invoking the example of the 1978 Camp David peace talks, which laid the groundwork for a historic accord between Israel and its bitter enemy, Egypt.

"The two leaders have profound and wrenching questions, and there can be no success without principled compromise," Clinton said at the White House before boarding a helicopter to Camp David. "The path ahead builds on the journey already taken from the first Camp David summit. I'll do everything I can over the coming days to see that this moment of promise is fulfilled."

No deadline has been set, but Clinton is scheduled to go to Japan on July 19 for an economic summit of the eight leading industrialized nations.

The gathering of leaders yesterday demonstrated that even though the Middle East peace process has often been sporadic since 1978, significant progress has been made.

Shaded by trees, Barak engaged yesterday in a "pleasant" conversation with Arafat about the history of Camp David, according to Lockhart. At Laurel cabin, the two playfully gave way to each other at the door. Such a scene would have been impossible to imagine in 1978, when Israel regarded Arafat as a terrorist.

Arafat is staying in the cabin that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin occupied during the first Camp David talks. Begin abhored Arafat and refused to acknowledge the existence of an independent Palestinian people.

While the present negotiations are supposed to determine the "final status" of Israeli-Palestinian relations, many analysts expect them to produce, at best, incremental progress and the prospect of more talks later.

Palestinian spokeswoman Ashrawi was unusually candid about such a prospect yesterday.

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