Clinton Returns to Mideast Talks

Monday, July 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

THURMONT, Md. (AP) — Plunging into talks immediately upon returning to Camp David, President Clinton held back-to-back meetings with the Mideast leaders and was conferring with his own team Monday. Both sides, meanwhile, renewed their claims to Jerusalem.

Clinton arrived back at the presidential retreat Sunday evening after a four-day trip to Japan for an economic summit. He held separate nighttime talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, then headed into a midmorning meeting with his negotiators, a White House spokesman said.

As the contentious talks entered Day 14, Clinton was deciding whether it was worthwhile to continue the quest for an elusive peace deal.

``A lot depends on his meetings and how he wants to move forward,'' said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

The Israelis concurred that the talks were at a critical juncture. Top negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami told Israel's army radio on Monday that ``the outcome ... will become finally or almost finally clear during the next two days.''

The main point of dispute remained Jerusalem, the holy city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as a capital. Israeli hard-liners cautioned Barak against deviating from Israel's pledge that the city will never be divided.

``No prime minister has the right to make concessions over Jerusalem,'' hawkish opposition lawmaker Ariel Sharon told Israel radio. ``Jerusalem is the birthright of the Jewish people.''

On the Palestinian side, top Arafat aide Tayib Abdel Rahim said Arafat stood ready to provide all faiths with access to Jerusalem's holy sites — as long as that was part of a sovereignty pact.

``The solution is very simple — give full sovereignty of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state,'' Abdel Rahim, who is in frequent contact with Arafat, told reporters in the Gaza Strip. ``We are ready to have Jerusalem as an open city for all religions.''

Although the summit has repeatedly veered close to collapse over Jerusalem — at one point last week, the White House declared prematurely that the talks had ended in failure — there were indications that Israelis wanted Barak to push ahead.

A poll published Monday indicated that 59 percent of Israelis hoped some deal would be reached at Camp David. There were 590 respondents in the poll, conducted by Gallup for the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points. Thirty-one percent would prefer to see the summit fail, and 10 percent said they don't know, according to the poll.

While there is no formal deadline for wrapping up the talks, spokesmen said the U.S. mediation effort could not continue indefinitely. ``We are not here for an unlimited period of time,'' said Boucher.

The American mediators have declined to discuss the substance of the peace talks, but Boucher said the overall tenor of negotiations was unchanged.

``It continues to be very hard, and we continue to try to move forward,'' he said. ``We might reach a deal; we might not.''

Israel's dovish justice minister, Yossi Beilin, told army radio the two sides could reach an accord if they really wanted to.

``The positions have become closer in recent years to such an extent that we will not forgive ourselves, neither we — nor, I hope, they — if we do not reach agreement,'' he said.

Palestinians, for their part, ratcheted up the pressure by reminding Israel of the Sept. 13 deadline for reaching a peace accord. They have said repeatedly they will declare statehood then, treaty or no treaty.

``We are looking to declare our state after reaching an agreement with Israel — if we do not reach an agreement we should declare a state because it's our right,'' Salim Zanoun, chairman of the PLO's policy-making Central Council, told reporters in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, talks on secondary issues that Israeli and Palestinian teams had held at Emmitsburg, Md., near Camp David, were essentially finished, Boucher said. Those negotiations had focused on side issues including water and civil administration.

On the Net: State Department Mideast summit site:—summit.html