Peace talks stumble

Clinton departs, but Arafat, Barak stay at Camp David

`Thought it was over'

Fate of Jerusalem remains key issue for historic pact

July 20, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

THURMONT -- President Clinton ended a grueling nine-day effort at Camp David last night, failing to broker an historic, permanent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Hours later, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced that they would stay at the mountain retreat and continue talks.

"We all thought it was over, and then we discovered that nobody wanted to give up," a weary Clinton said at 12:45 a.m. today. The president then prepared to leave quickly for a weekend economic summit in Japan.

While there was a profound feeling of missed opportunity for one of Clinton's chief foreign policy goals, he held out the possibility that progress on a peace accord could still be made in the coming days.

"The two parties have been making an intensive effort to resolve their differences over the most difficult issues," Clinton told reporters. "The gaps remain substantial, but there has been progress, and we must be al prepared to go the extra mile."

Upon returning from Japan, Clinton said, he "will assess the status of the talks."

Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright is expected to mediate the negotiations while Clinton attends the economic summit.

Barak and Arafat's decision to stay, rescuing the summit from a total collapse for now, ended a day of sharp reversals.

Late yesterday, all parties appeared to be exiting Camp David and heading into a feared cycle of violence on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said when the negotiations broke up shortly before 11 p.m.

By then, the Palestinians and Israelis, enemies for 52 years, had accused each other of failing to be flexible. The day had included the formal delivery of letters to Clinton by Barak and Arafat, presidential phone calls to Middle East leaders and an accusation by Barak that Arafat was "not a partner for peace."

But up to the time of Lockhart's 10:55 p.m. statement, the outcome was hanging in the balance as Clinton shuttled between Barak and Arafat to try to resolve fundamental differences.

"The priority of the president right now is to continue to work as hard as he can to make sure that every possible avenue toward an agreement is explored," Lockhart had said earlier in the evening, his voice quavering. "

Clinton had delayed his departure for the economic summit in Japan, but hopes that a last-ditch push would bridge the gaps quickly were dashed yesterday morning when Barak delivered a letter of regret to Clinton.

Barak implied that he was giving up on the talks, and Israeli journalists were told to prepare for departure yesterday afternoon.

In the letter, Barak accused Arafat of "not negotiating in good faith" for peace. The Palestinians, he said, "are not ready to take historic decisions. Unless there are last-minute developments, the Palestinians will have to witness the tragic results of missing a historical opportunity."

Around the time he received Barak's written missive, Clinton met with Arafat, then with Barak and then with the U.S. negotiating team that includes Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.

After making an afternoon phone call to Barak, Clinton stepped into Arafat's cabin about 5:15 p.m. for a climatic, five-hour attempt to push the parties into a deal.

Earlier, Arafat sent his own letter to Clinton. The contents were unavailable, but Lockhart characterized Arafat's letter as "different in nature, purpose and substance" from Barak's.

A peace agreement would probably have spurred protests by dissidents on both sides, but a peace breakdown will generate even greater strife and perhaps outright war, analysts of the region said.

"The choice is peace with limited violence or no peace with a lot more violence," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Arafat has promised to declare Palestinian independence after Sept. 13. Barak, in turn, has said he would retaliate by annexing pieces of the West Bank that he has considered handing over to the Palestinians.

While not a full-fledged army, the Palestinian security force is well armed enough to give the Israeli army a fight. In the Intifada Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, Israeli soldiers merely faced rock-throwing youths.

If the peace process breaks down, "this would not be another Intifada," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "You now have tens of thousands of Palestinian soldiers who are armed, and you would have firefights and essentially military skirmishes. Sooner or later this would come under control, I expect, after an awful lot of casualties."

In the Middle East yesterday, parties on both sides were blaming each other for the impasse in the talks, trying to prepare public opinion in advance of a total breakdown in negotiations.

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