- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

THURMONT, Md. Middle East peace talks grew more urgent yesterday as President Clinton pushed for an agreement before the economic summit in Japan and conservatives held a massive demonstration in Israel.
But there was no sign of a breakthrough at Camp David, where Mr. Clinton huddled with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a sixth day of tense negotiations over the thorniest and most profound issues dividing the Middle East adversaries.
Mr. Clinton, in his first extended comments on the talks, said yesterday that "there has been some progress, but I can't say I know we will succeed."
"It's so hard," the president said in an interview with the New York Daily News. "My heart goes out to [Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat]… . What's really troubling is that they know if they make a peace agreement, half of their constituencies will be angry at them for a while."
To complicate matters, tens of thousands of conservative Jews staged demonstrations in Tel Aviv yesterday to warn Mr. Barak against conceding too much to the Palestinians. And Mr. Barak telephoned his deputies in Israel to report that wide gaps remain with Palestinians and that negotiations had turned rocky, according to Agence France-Presse.
Chanting "The country must not be lost," and "We are the majority, and the majority will win," the demonstrators crowded into Rabin square, the site where the late prime minister was assassinated in 1995 and where large protests are often held.
Much of the crowd, estimated at up to 150,000, had come by bus from settlements in the West Bank, from homes they fear they might lose in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Others were members of the opposition Likud party or other conservative parties.
Earlier yesterday, Israeli security forces evacuated some 30 young Jewish settlers from a renegade West Bank outpost they had set up to protest possible Israeli concessions at Camp David. And in Nablus, in the northern West Bank, some 1,000 Palestinians held a rally calling on Mr. Arafat not to make concessions to Israel. A cross-section of Palestinian groups organized the rally from Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction to Hamas, a militant Islamic group.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration continued to strictly enforce a news blackout on the talks, adamantly refusing to characterize the substance. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart shrugged off a pessimistic assessment of the summit from Israel's foreign minister in Jerusalem.
"I'm not going to get into handicapping the comments of those who aren't here," Mr. Lockhart said. "They're free to make them. You are free to report them. But their existential meaning on these talks are debatable."
Mr. Lockhart also downplayed reports that administration officials are beginning to quietly lobby members of Congress for tens of billions in aid to finance any Clinton-brokered peace deal.
"I don't know that there is a specific price tag that anyone with an authoritative voice has used," Mr. Lockhart said. "Those with not authoritative voices are free to speculate."
He added: "The president has consulted Congress throughout this process and, as appropriate, will consult more closely, should some sort of package need to be put together."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Mr. Clinton broached the subject of aid during a conversation before the summit last week, but did not affix a dollar value. He said on Fox News Channel yesterday that $15 billion a year would be "way too high."
"Look, we're talking about the American taxpayers' dollars," Mr. Lott said. "We want Middle East peace. But we'd better be very careful with how those dollars are used."
While conservatives appear willing to fund military aspects of a peace deal, such as fortifying Israeli positions along newly defined borders, they are loath to pay reparations or resettlement costs to displaced Palestinians.
Patrick J. Buchanan, presidential candidate for the Reform Party, cautioned against spending too much.
"If this agreement is bought with some gigantic bribe at the expense of the American taxpayers to give Bill Clinton a Nobel Prize as his legacy, I think the Americans really ought to reject it," Mr. Buchanan said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I've seen figures as high as $100 billion and more for a peace in the Middle East, and I don't believe the Americans should take their budget surplus and give it away in foreign aid."
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush received phone calls Saturday from Mr. Barak, who gave no indication that an agreement was imminent.
The lack of a breakthrough lent new urgency as talks entered their sixth day yesterday. Tomorrow is the last full day Mr. Clinton plans to attend the summit before flying to Japan for a Group of Eight economic meeting.
Mr. Lockhart refused to speculate on whether Mr. Clinton might skip the G-8 meeting if a Middle East peace agreement seems imminent early Wednesday.
"I would be totally misleading if I said I had an inkling that a deal is at hand," Mr. Clinton said in the New York Daily News interview. "That's just not true. But we are slogging."
The core issues being grappled with this week include the volatile question of whether a portion of Jerusalem should be used as capital of a Palestinian state. Other issues that are almost as difficult include border disputes that could be resolved by swapping unoccupied Israeli land for Palestinian-controlled sections of the West Bank that are occupied by Israeli settlers.
Few believe all issues will be resolved at the current Camp David summit, but many are hopeful that significant progress can be achieved on one or more of the core issues. That would allow Mr. Clinton to meet once or twice more with Middle East leaders in the waning months of his presidency.
If the summit breaks up with no agreement whatsoever, violence could erupt in the region, especially if Mr. Arafat makes good on his promise to unilaterally declare statehood on Sept. 13, agreement or no agreement.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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