- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak narrowly survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote yesterday, clearing the way for a high-risk Israeli-Palestinian summit that starts today at Camp David.
White House officials are hoping to impose a near-total media blackout as President Clinton greets Mr. Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Maryland presidential retreat for what could be a week or more of intensive talks.
"It is perhaps the most difficult of all peace problems in the world," Mr. Clinton said yesterday, adding that he believed the two leaders had the "sheer guts" to clinch a comprehensive peace deal ending a half-century of enmity.
Mr. Barak, whose left-right coalition government has been rocked by defections in the days before the summit, barely survived a vote of no confidence yesterday in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Government opponents mustered 54 votes to the government's 52, but fell seven votes shy of the majority needed when seven lawmakers abstained and another seven were absent.
But, bolstered by a new opinion poll showing a majority of Israelis still back his trip to Camp David, Mr. Barak remained defiant.
"It was childish behavior that we saw today," Mr. Barak told reporters in Jerusalem after the vote. "The government did not fall, and I am continuing onward to Camp David."
During the Knesset debate, Mr. Barak faced down hecklers, saying, "The moment of truth is upon us. Just a year ago, the public gave us a mandate to lead, not to protect what exists but to change the reality from its core and to assure the future of Israel."
Ariel Sharon, leader of the main opposition party, Likud, countered that Mr. Barak was going against the popular will.
"The prime minister who wanted to be prime minister of everybody within a year has become a prime minister of almost no one," Mr. Sharon said. "A prime minister who can't make peace in his nation, let alone his own government, can't make peace with the Arabs."
Both Mr. Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright expressed confidence that Mr. Barak could still be effective at Camp David, despite his domestic troubles.
Trying to replicate the success of the first Mideast Camp David summit 22 years ago, White House officials said yesterday they hope to prevent damaging leaks as the principals hash out the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region.
The Palestinians have been far more skeptical of the summit idea, fearing Mr. Arafat will be under heavy pressure from the United States to make concessions.
The Palestinian leader has been visiting leaders in the region in the run-up to the summit. At a gathering of African leaders yesterday, Mr. Arafat repeated his determination to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state Sept. 13 if talks with Israel fail to bear fruit, a declaration that many fear could ignite a new round of violence in the region.
"Barak has really been throwing the dice, preparing his people for some major concessions," said Samuel Lewis, part of the U.S. negotiating team at the 1978 Israel-Egypt summit and a former ambassador to Israel. "Arafat hasn't been doing the same thing on his side."
Mr. Lewis said he believed there was a chance the two sides could make major progress at Camp David, although they may fall short of the comprehensive accord the Clinton administration hoped for.
"Both parties have to feel that it will be more dangerous and more painful to stay where they are than to sign on to a deal," Mr. Lewis said. "I think both Barak and Arafat understand that a total failure at Camp David would put them on a path that would be a disaster for both men and for both their peoples."
Mr. Clinton will devote the major portion of his time to the talks before leaving for the Group of Eight summit in Japan July 19.
"I don't want to set an artificial deadline for these talks, but … we need to get right on it, because it's not as if we don't know what's out there to be done," Mr. Clinton said.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held preparatory talks in Washington yesterday. Each side will be allowed a 12-member delegation inside Camp David.
Mr. Arafat was due to arrive in Washington late yesterday evening and spend the night at Camp David. Mr. Barak will arrive just a few hours before the summit is due to start at 9 a.m. today.
U.S. interest groups weighed in yesterday as the summit participants were making their final preparations.
American Muslim groups yesterday warned Palestinian negotiators against any compromise on "Islam rights" in Jerusalem and its Al-Aqsa Mosque, which they revere as a holy site of pilgrimage required by the Prophet Mohammed in the Koran.
"History shows that Muslim and Christian religious rights are not safe under an Israeli occupation," said the eight groups, which included the American Muslim Council and the Islamic Society of North America.
Separately, 315 prominent American Jews released a letter of support for Mr. Barak, praising his "strong and visionary leadership."
"We hope that Chairman Arafat will also have the courage to make decisions and take risks for peace at this critical time," the letter said.
Staff writer Larry Witham contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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