Clinton's final bid to break deadlock

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON launched a last-ditch US effort to save the Middle East peace process yesterday with a personal appeal to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "break the log jam" in implementing the five-year-old Oslo accords.

Mr Clinton was speaking after private meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat, at the start of what could be four or more days of tough negotiations.

Mr Clinton had welcomed the two leaders to the White House before they retreated to the privacy of the Wye River Plantation conference centre about 70 miles from Washington for the talks proper.

With Mr Netanyahu on one side, and Mr Arafat on the other, Mr Clinton emerged into the White House Rose Garden to say that "too much time" had already been lost over the past 19 months of stalemate.

"This week's talks offer the chance for the parties to break the log jam and finally take the next essential steps for peace," Mr Clinton said.

Peace, he said, was "more than a process; in the end, it is a destination".

Fresh from tricky negotiations himself with Congressional Republicans over the 1999 US Budget, Mr Clinton stressed the need for compromise. "Neither side can expect to win 100 per cent of every point. But concessions that seem hard now will seem far less important in the light of an accord that moves Israelis and Palestinians closer to lasting peace," he said.

Both leaders professed themselves prepared to apply their best efforts to reaching agreement. "We come with the best intentions," said Mr Netanyahu, "and we hope that there will be an accord. We're asked to give additional territory; we want to ensure that this territory doesn't become a base and a haven for terrorists to attack us as happened before."

Mr Arafat said that the Palestinians would guarantee "100 per cent effort", but "no one in the world can give 100 per cent results".

The United States is concerned to keep the peace process on track by meeting, or formally extending, the May deadline for Israel to withdraw from the next tranche of occupied territory and start "final status talks" on such sensitive issues as border demarcation and the status of Jerusalem.

Mr Clinton later joined Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat and their teams of negotiators for a brief opening ceremony at Wye Plantation, where he gave a brief, no-nonsense statement calling for hard work on both sides. The media is being kept deliberately at arm's length; its facilities are five miles away at a local college.

The tri-lateral summit is the result of almost a year of on-off shuttling by American diplomats, including the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross.

Ms Albright is heading the US delegation.

The meeting has echoes of both the Camp David meeting hosted by President Jimmy Carter 20 years ago, which achieved the first breakthrough in Middle East peace, and also the talks at Dayton, Ohio, at which the Bosnian peace process was inaugurated.

Then, as now, the US negotiators combined an open timetable, geographical seclusion and the absence of the media to confine the two parties until they have no alternative but to reach agreement.

With the atmosphere soured for the Israeli side by the death of an Israeli man at the hands of a Palestinian gunman earlier in the week, Israeli officials made known that they are insisting on specific and written security guarantees from the Palestinians before ceding the agreed 13 per cent of occupied territory.

Both they and US State Department officials indicated they were working on a progressive deal that would match specific progress on security to specific troop withdrawals.

One US objective is to avert any unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinian leader.

While Mr Arafat has not ruled out such a declaration, and appears to be holding it in reserve in the event that the talks make no progress, the Israelis have made clear that such a move would mean the end of the peace process for years to come. The presence on the Israeli side of the new foreign minister, the noted hardliner, Ariel Sharon, was seen paradoxically by both Palestinians and Americans as a hopeful sign - a token that Israel was seriously interested in an agreement.