Quest for Mideast peace dominates U.N. gathering

Clinton asks Israeli, Palestinian allies to push for agreement

Talks with Arafat, Barak

September 07, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The Middle East conflict, which has preoccupied the United Nations for more than 50 years and the Clinton presidency for eight, dominated the agendas of both again yesterday as President Clinton pleaded with U.N. members to help nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward a final peace accord.

"To those who have supported the right of Israel to live in security and peace, to those who have championed the Palestinian cause these many years, let me say to all of you: They need your support now more than ever to take the hard risks for peace," Clinton told the U.N. Millennium Summit, billed as the largest-ever assembly of world leaders.

"They have the chance to do it," Clinton said, "but like all life's chances, it is fleeting and about to pass. There is not a moment to lose."

Clinton's speech, a farewell address from a president who has addressed the United Nations each year since 1993, added to the end-of-an-era feeling that came as some 160 kings, presidents, prime ministers, princes and generals gathered to mark the millennial milestone.

While dozens of diplomatic initiatives floated through East Manhattan yesterday, the Middle East question dominated, as it has so often.

The question of the moment was whether looming deadlines and fading opportunity would push Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into a historic treaty, or whether Israeli-Palestinian hostility would survive the Clinton presidency, the Millennium Summit and the millennium itself.

"When leaders do seize this chance for peace, we must help them," said Clinton, who met separately with Barak for an hour and Arafat for more than 90 minutes yesterday afternoon.

The meetings produced little apparent progress. Last night presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "We did not expect today to be a day where we have a breakthrough in the process. That is true. On the other hand, the process has not broken down. ... The parties continue to be focused on getting an agreement."

While they may have enjoyed limos, chauffeurs and intimidating security staffs, the world leaders at the United Nations networked and pow-wowed like any other set of New York conventioneers.

After staying at the United Nations to hear a speech by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Clinton spent 90 minutes meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

In their third meeting since May, the Russian and U.S. leaders discussed recent tensions in Yugoslavia, including rising disagreements between Serbia and Montenegro, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said.

They also touched on the sinking of the submarine Kursk, the U.N. embargo on Iraq and Clinton's decision last week to delay authorizing a missile defense system, Talbott said.

Clinton also said hello to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and held a brief meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong. In the meeting with Luong, he discussed the possibility of his visiting Vietnam, White House aides said. Today and Friday Clinton plans to meet one-on-one with leaders from South Korea, China and Turkey.

But he quickly turned to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which White House officials said is near the top of his list of hoped-for accomplishments before he leaves office in January.

In a five-hour stretch starting at about 3:30, Clinton was to meet separately with Barak, Arafat, King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. At 8 o'clock last night he was still meeting with the Jordanian leader.

Clinton wasn't the only one involved in the Middle East peace talks to use the U.N. pulpit yesterday to broadcast a message.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Barak looked directly at Arafat and said time would soon show "whether our counterparts are ... capable of rising to the magnitude of the hour," adding, "We are at the Rubicon and no one of us can cross it alone."

On the seemingly intractable issue of the political future of Jerusalem, Barak said, "We recognize that Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims and Christians the world over, and cherished by our Palestinian neighbors. A true peace will reflect all of these bonds."

But he warned of "a tide of bloodshed and grief" if the peace talks fail.

Arab leaders at the United Nations, including Jordan's Abdullah, backed Arafat and said that U.N. resolutions call for Israel to withdraw from 100 percent of the territory it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, including East Jerusalem. Israel disputes that interpretation, saying the resolution calls for the exchange of only some of the occupied land for peace.

In his speech to the United Nations, Arafat condemned what he called an "Israeli attempt to Judaize Jerusalem" and added, "we remain committed to our national rights over East Jerusalem, capital of our state and shelter of our sacred sites."

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