- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

THURMONT, Md. President Clinton rejoined the troubled Middle East talks at Camp David last night after hurrying home from a four-day trip to Asia, saying "I'm keeping my fingers crossed" for a peace deal.
The president arrived by helicopter at the retreat in the mountains of Maryland, where he met with his negotiating team and was assessing the state of the summit, according to a spokesman.
Boarding the chopper at the White House after his flight home from an economic summit in Japan which he left early to get back to Camp David Mr. Clinton showed reporters his crossed fingers, and said he was keeping them that way.
With the president's return, it was expected to be clear soon whether the talks would break off or move ahead. Mr. Clinton was meeting later with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"We expect meetings into the night," Mr. Boucher said. "He's back; he's ready to go… . A lot depends on his meetings and how he wants to move forward."
On the 13th day of talks the same period required to strike a deal at the landmark 1978 Camp David summit neither Israel nor the Palestinians signaled any change in position on the prime point of dispute, Jerusalem. Both sides claim the ancient city as their capital.
"The ball is in the Israeli court," said Hassan Abdel Rahman, Washington envoy of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a frequent spokesman during the talks. "Will they do what is needed to reach an agreement? Or will they stick to their unacceptable positions?"
Israeli spokesman Gadi Baltiansky suggested the Palestinians would need to make concessions to move matters forward. With Mr. Clinton's return, he said, "We will try to see if there are grounds for continuing this effort."
Speaking later on Israeli television, Mr. Baltiansky said: "It would be easier to prophesy what will happen in 24 years than what will happen here in the next 24 hours."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who sat in for Mr. Clinton after he left before dawn Thursday, took both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak on separate short trips over the weekend, the Palestinian leader to lunch at her Virginia farm and the Israeli prime minister to the nearby Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg yesterday morning. Mrs. Albright met later in the day with Mr. Barak.
The excursions marked the first time the two leaders had left Camp David, in the Catoctin Mountains 90 miles northwest of Washington, since the talks began.
Asked about prospects for the summit going forward, Mr. Boucher said Mr. Clinton's initial assessment would be extremely important. After U.S. officials prematurely declared Wednesday that the summit had ended without an agreement, "one hesitates to make any kind of prediction," he said.
No deadline has been set for completing the talks, but Mr. Boucher said the U.S. mediation effort could not continue indefinitely. "We are not here for an unlimited period of time," he said.
Throughout the summit, U.S. spokesmen have freely acknowledged the atmosphere has been tense at times. Mr. Boucher said that remained the case as the two sides grappled with the toughest issues.
"It continues to be very hard, and we continue to try to move forward," Mr. Boucher said. "We might reach a deal; we might not."
Mr. Clinton said before leaving Japan that whatever the outcome, the two sides had made a genuine effort to resolve their long-standing disputes over Jerusalem, the boundaries of a Palestinian state and the fate of several million Palestinian refugees.
"I can say they have not wasted their time. They have really worked," the president said. "Whether we get an agreement or not, I can't tell. But they have really worked."
If any agreement is reached, both leaders must prepare for a fierce backlash at home.
Mr. Barak, almost toppled by hard-liners before he left for the summit, came under renewed criticism yesterday from Jewish settlers. Settler leader Zeev Hever said most settlers would refuse to budge from homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip no matter what might be decided at Camp David.
"We are not scared off. We are going to stay on the ground," Mr. Hever told Israel's Army Radio.
On the Palestinian side, the radical Islamic group Hamas drew 1,500 people Saturday to a rally in the Gaza Strip demanding that Mr. Arafat abandon the summit and resume the fight to destroy Israel.
Mr. Boucher refused to comment on developments in the region but said the leaders are aware that any agreement they might reach "will be tested in public opinion."
On another matter, an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, denied reports that the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American convicted and jailed for spying for Israel, was among issues on the table at Camp David. Israel has long pressed for Pollard's release.
Mr. Boucher refused comment on whether Pollard's case had been brought up in the talks, saying he could not answer questions dealing with "what might or might not be discussed up there."

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