Jerusalem is summit's big hurdle

Barak, Arafat to stay at Camp David in Clinton's absence

Brinkmanship and reversal

Talks narrowed gap on Israeli security, Palestine boundaries

July 21, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

THURMONT -- Before he left for Japan yesterday, President Clinton pushed negotiators at Camp David closer than ever before to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, narrowing the gaps on Israeli security desires and on the borders of a potential Palestinian nation, diplomats said.

But delegates were unable to bridge differences on the sensitive matter of Jerusalem, leading to a total breakdown in the talks before they were pulled from the edge in a surprising reversal early yesterday.

Brinkmanship is routine in Middle East politics, where no offer is final until the plane lifts off and where diplomatic valises bulge with unused fallback positions.

But in the grueling peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians this week, the brink has turned into a moving target.

When delegates at Camp David changed their minds Wednesday night and decided to continue meeting without Clinton, it was the second time in as many days that an immovable deadline was moved.

Early yesterday, Clinton astonished the world -- or at least the part that was awake -- by announcing that the previously canceled talks were back in session.

Only an hour after presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters "the summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to extend the negotiations while Clinton visits Japan for an economic summit.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has taken charge of the bargaining, which is expected to simmer until the president returns Sunday or Monday. At that time, Clinton said yesterday, "I will assess the status of the talks."

Nobody here believes that an extra three or four days will significantly boost the chances for a peace agreement.

The choice for additional time might have grown out of fear for the consequences of failed talks as much as hope for success, diplomats said.

The decision by Arafat and Barak to extend the negotiations "was eminently sensible," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser during the first Camp David talks, between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

"And it also means that ... to go back with nothing is a personal defeat for each of them and for both of them at the same time," Brzezinski said.

"I'm still hopeful. I think they're going to hammer something out."

Squeezing every drop

But if a deal is eventually reached, the show of stress, grief and excruciation that preceded Wednesday's broken deadline will help Barak and Arafat sell it to their peoples, diplomatic analysts said.

"They need to demonstrate to the folks back home that they squeezed every drop possible from the other side," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum.

White House and State Department spokesmen, the official spokesmen for the 10-day-old peace talks, disclosed few details of Wednesday's crisis.

But interviews with people close to the summit shed additional light.

They show that extending the sessions was a U.S. idea, that talks will be idling until Clinton returns, and that all three delegations were preparing to leave Camp David before the announcement of "failure" was abruptly changed to "still trying."

Meetings early and late

Wednesday started for Clinton about 9 a.m. in a meeting with Albright, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger and other U.S. negotiators.

They consulted for about an hour on the previous night's meetings with Barak and then Arafat, which lasted until after midnight.

The talks were stuck, and had been for a few days.

In nearly nonstop bargaining since Saturday, the delegates had made progress on some of the difficult issues dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians, diplomatic officials said, especially Israel's security concerns and the borders of a potential Palestinian nation.

Holy city is issue

Arafat had agreed to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and Barak had indicated a willingness to turn over more than 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

Jerusalem was the problem.

The ancient city, site of some of the holiest spots in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis as their capital.

Arafat wants Palestinian control of Islamic shrines and Arabic quarters in the eastern part of the city. Israel, which has held East Jerusalem since the Six Day War in 1967, has offered to expand the city, giving Arafat at least a piece of a newly defined Jerusalem.

But by Wednesday morning, the Palestinian leader still wanted more than Israel was proffering, and an exhausted Clinton spent most of the day shuttling between the two equally tired Middle East leaders in an attempt to span the breach.

Double overtime

The talks were already running into overtime.

Tuesday night, Lockhart had made a great show of giving his final news briefing, thanking the town of Thurmont for providing the press center and telling reporters, "This may be the last time I come up here."

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