Hopes high despite failed talks

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Mideast officials say peace process revived

WASHINGTON – Exhausted leaders and their negotiating teams left the Camp David summit Tuesday without a comprehensive peace but voicing greater hopes than they had two weeks ago that a deal can be reached.

The talks ended early Tuesday after it became clear that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators could not settle their differences over the status of Jerusalem. President Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had compromised more on the issue than had Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"The prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat, particularly surrounding questions of Jerusalem," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat signed a statement promising to avoid violence or unilateral actions that prejudge the outcome of negotiations that are expected to resume in the coming weeks.

Despite the failure at Camp David, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Barak and a senior Palestinian negotiator said the marathon talks revived the Mideast peace process. The parties said discussions toward concluding a peace agreement that could create a new Palestinian state will resume once the leaders have talked with their allies and general public.

"They couldn't get there – that's the truth, they couldn't get there," Mr. Clinton said. "On balance, it was very much the right thing to do, and it increases the chance of a successful agreement, and it increases the chances of avoiding a disaster."

Mr. Arafat left without speaking to reporters and headed for meetings with fellow Arab leaders. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, said an agreement could be reached before Sept. 13, the deadline set earlier by both sides to conclude a comprehensive settlement.

"I believe the continuation of our efforts will produce an agreement no later than September 13," he said. "Everything is crystal clear now."

For months, Mr. Arafat has said he will declare the creation of a Palestinian state by Sept. 13 with or without an agreement. The threat was one of the reasons Mr. Clinton cited for bringing the two leaders to Camp David for intense, direct negotiations.

Mr. Barak blamed the failure at Camp David on Mr. Arafat for hesitating "to take the historic decisions that were needed."

Mr. Barak rejected the notion that the summit had been a mistake. "On any kind of level, we are in much better shape now.

"The vision of peace suffered a major blow, but I believe that with good faith, goodwill on all sides, it can recuperate," he said.

Mr. Erekat brushed aside criticism of Mr. Arafat.

"No one had expected to conclude a comprehensive deal in two weeks," he said. "I don't think it serves any purpose to assign blame, because the peace process will continue."

The negotiations were the first top-level talks between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders aimed at resolving the difficult issues of final boundaries, Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

The rule guiding the negotiations, however, was that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. That meant whatever progress was made toward boundaries, refugees, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian statehood would require an agreement on Jerusalem. Mr. Barak emphasized that point when he said that Israeli offers on Jerusalem were "now null and void."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: "There was incredible progress, I think, across the board," but she acknowledged "the commitments that were made by all are set aside." She said Israelis and Palestinians came away from the talks with the ability "to see more deeply into each other's needs and to understand some of the elements of what it takes to deal with these core issues."

Ms. Albright said ordinary Israelis and Palestinians would have to take a greater role in the debate about peace in order to reach a settlement.

"I know this sounds a little crazy, because we've all talked about these issues quite a lot here, but the truth is that a lot of these issues have been kind of off the table for a lot of time," she said. "People might have been talking about them privately, but they were not part of the public discourse."

The three sides did not provide details on what was discussed, but Mr. Clinton said Jerusalem was the most difficult issue. Mr. Barak said he offered to simultaneously enlarge and divide Jerusalem so that Israeli settlers could be brought within the city's boundaries while Arab neighborhoods joined a Palestinian entity.

Palestinian sources told The Associated Press, however, that Mr. Barak would not give the Palestinians any sovereignty over the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem, where two of the most sacred shrines of Islam stand over the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

Mr. Arafat sent a note to Mr. Clinton about 3 a.m. saying it was pointless to continue, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials and analysts said the remaining differences, particularly over Jerusalem, should now be debated among Palestinians and Israelis so their leaders will have a clearer idea of what can be accepted.

"The thing I hope most of all is that the people in the Middle East will appreciate the fact that a lot was done here and will support their leaders in coming back and finishing the job," Mr. Clinton said.

Jonathan Paris, a Mideast expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the talks had broken through many once-taboo subjects.

"The Israelis talked seriously about the right [of Palestinian refugees] to return, about relinquishing sovereignty over part of Jerusalem," he said. "The idea of a Palestinian state was taboo in Israel two years ago, but now it's an accepted outcome."

Others said the progress made at Camp David could come apart once Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat return home.

"The real question is whether they're going to be able to contain the domestic politics, and the inevitable psychology of failure," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Telhami said Mr. Barak's coalition government fell apart on the eve of the summit, leaving a fractured political landscape in Israel. Mr. Arafat, meanwhile, will come under pressure from Palestinians who want violence brought back as a weapon in their struggle, he said.

"Today the chance of violence is much higher than it was before the summit. The chance of failure is much higher than it was before the summit," Dr. Telhami said.

Mr. Paris disagreed.

"The real risk of violence was if they succeeded," he said. "Then the Israeli extremists and the Palestinian extremists would have tried to block it."

If the Camp David talks mark the end of serious negotiations rather than the beginning, however, Mr. Paris said any stability would vanish.

"Without a peace agreement, it's going to get violent," he said.