- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

President Clinton yesterday invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to a Camp David summit next week, in a high-risk bid to clinch a Middle East peace deal before his term runs out.

The summit, set to begin Tuesday at the Maryland presidential retreat, will tackle the most intractable issues in the bitter 52-year standoff, including the borders of an independent Palestinian state, the fate of nearly 200,000 Israeli Jews who have settled in the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

With negotiations stalled and a Sept. 13 deadline looming to reach an accord, Mr. Clinton insisted that events on the ground and not his own political timetable led to the decision to convene a summit.

"The negotiators have reached an impasse," Mr. Clinton told reporters yesterday. "Movement now depends on historic decisions that only the two leaders can make.

"To delay this gathering, to remain stalled, is simply no longer an option," the president added.

Simply agreeing to the high-profile summit represents a major gamble for each of the three participants, with failure a distinct possibility. Just a week ago, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators refused to commit to a U.S. summit during a Mideast diplomatic tour by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Mr. Barak, who has been far more open to the idea of an early summit than Mr. Arafat in recent days, confirmed next week's meeting during a Paris visit yesterday.

"We have to be able to seize the opportunity, exploit it, and try to put an end to the conflict, if that's possible, in a way that keeps the dignity and respect of both sides," Mr. Barak said.

By contrast, Palestinian officials yesterday refused for several hours even to confirm that Mr. Arafat had accepted Mr. Clinton's invitation, and the Palestinians' top negotiator sounded a pessimistic note.

"We don't have any common ground on any of the issues," said the Palestinian Authority's Ahmed Qureia. "There are big gaps on all the issues Jerusalem, refugees, and borders."

U.S. negotiators hope the Camp David setting can revive some of the magic of the September 1978 summit hosted by President Carter, which produced the accord that led to the signing of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

Reporters will be kept away from the compound site. Mr. Clinton said yesterday he will devote a large chunk of his time to the talks, and State Department officials said Mrs. Albright will be a "constant presence" at the summit.

Mrs. Albright has already canceled her trip to a meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers in Japan this month. The White House said Mr. Clinton still plans to attend the economic summit in Okinawa July 21-23, leaving him 10 days to devote to the Camp David talks.

Mr. Barak took a direct political hit yesterday when two smaller parties in his ruling coalition announced they were prepared to quit the government next week over the summit.

"The prime minister is traveling [to Camp David] without trying to make consensus here," said Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, whose party representing Israel's large Russian immigrant population controls four seats.

The five-seat National Religious Party, which rejects any territorial concessions on the West Bank, also said it will defect, leaving the government with control of just 54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Even with the losses, Mr. Barak is gambling he can push a peace deal through with support from opposition lawmakers in the parliament and sell the deal to Israel's war-weary voters in a referendum.

Mr. Arafat, facing hard-liners in his own camp, has been even more reluctant to buy into the summit idea than Mr. Barak, saying lower-level negotiations and further Israeli concessions were required before a summit could be considered.

While Mr. Barak has let it be known he would cede more than four-fifths of the West Bank and Gaza Strip land Israel seized in the 1967 war, Mr. Arafat has continued to demand all of the disputed land, with Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

In addition, the Camp David summiteers will have to decide the fate of some 150 Israeli settlements in the occupied lands and the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees, many of whom want to return to their old homes in Israel.

The Palestinian Central Council Monday raised the negotiating stakes by voting to declare an independent state unilaterally Sept. 13 if the peace process with Israel breaks down.

Nicole Brackman, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that deadline date may have had more to do with the timing of the summit than Mr. Clinton's looming departure from the scene.

"Once the statehood declaration is issued, all bets are off," she said.

The Middle East researcher said Mr. Arafat may emerge as the key to the summit's success or failure.

"Barak has spent a lot of time trying to prepare the Israelis for the concessions they'll have to make," she said. "Arafat has not done anything like that on his side. It's impossible for the Palestinians to get everything they want, but Arafat has not prepared them for compromise."

For Mr. Clinton, a breakdown at the summit would prove an embarrassing failure in a critical election year.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart yesterday denied the summit's timing reflected a lame-duck president's bid to burnish his foreign policy record.

"There's been quite a misconception about the timing of this," Mr. Lockhart said, "having to do with the president's time left in office. The timetable for these discussions has been set by the parties."

A senior U.S. official said Mr. Clinton's decision to call the summit also reflected U.S. concerns that positions were hardening in the region.

"One of the things that began to worry us was that the logic of stalemate was beginning to reflect the way the [Israeli and Palestinian] negotiators were dealing with each other," said the official, who asked not to be named.

"On their own, they were beginning to produce more bitterness than results," the official said.

But, the official noted, "these are excruciatingly difficult decisions to make, and I don't know anybody who rushes to make excruciatingly difficult decisions."

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