Clinton returns to US as hopes rise for peace summit

President expected to cut short his visit to the G8 meeting in Japan as progress is made on the crucial issue of divided Jerusalem
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The Independent Online

US President Bill Clinton may return as early as this morning to the Middle East talks at Camp David, a sign that the US believes some progress may still be made.

US President Bill Clinton may return as early as this morning to the Middle East talks at Camp David, a sign that the US believes some progress may still be made.

The talks were revived earlier this week after apparently collapsing, and the President left for a Group of Seven meeting in Japan. It is still far from clear whether a deal is possible, but Mr Clinton might see this as a more pressing matter than the usual G7 menu.

The two parties are doing plenty of verbal sparring, but there is little indication of practical movement. Israel's super-slick Camp David publicity team tried to steal a march over the Palestinians yesterday by announcing that Ehud Barak had accepted an American proposal for "joint sovereignty" in east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians swiftly ruled out the idea, as it differed little from earlier solutions leaked by the Israelis and because they see "joint sovereignty" as a contradiction in terms, which really means overall Israeli control over Greater Jerusalem.

The chief reason for Israel's manoeuvre - unveiled during television interviews by Rabbi Michael Melchior, one of Mr Barak's ministers and a leading light in the Israeli PR team - seems to have been to create the impression that Palestinian intransigence will be to blame if the talks break down.

"We're talking about a US proposal which accepts Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem as an undivided city and has some signs of joint sovereignty, expanded self-administration, of some of the Arab Muslim quarters in the outskirts of Jerusalem," Mr Melchior, the Diaspora Affairs Minister, told BBC World.

In return, Israel would be allowed to annexed large Jewish West Bank settlements close to Jerusalem's eastern edge. An Israeli negotiator on Mr Barak's team at Camp David, Maryland, denied that the premier had accepted any proposal.

Israeli officials had said Mr Barak would leave Camp David on Sunday unless there is a deal. That leaves a slim negotiating window. The White House said Mr Clinton had been due to leave on Sunday, but might leave on Saturday instead. That would mean rescheduling a meeting with Tony Blair and perhaps embarrassing his Japanese hosts, who had tried to build up the meeting into a significant event.

Mr Clinton declined to say whether he was growing more optimistic about a Middle East settlement. "All I can tell you is that they are still talking and that, consistent with our rules, I am still not talking,'' he said. "But I am hopeful.''

In theory, there is a media blackout over the Camp David talks. In practice, Israel has mounted an elaborate PR operation, that seems to be scoring some successes.

The announcement about Jerusalem leapt to the top of international news bulletins; CNN and other western television outlets and news agencies regularly refer to Israeli "concessions," when they mean proposed deals in which Israel would annex areas of the West Bank which were occupied and settled in defiance of international law.

That much was implicitly acknowledged by Israel's liberal Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, yesterday.

Years of paying homage to "a unified Jerusalem" had become a burden Israel should no longer bear, Mr Beilin said. "These villages are not really ours," he told Israel army radio, speaking of Arab neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city, captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

"We must not allow this mirage to become an obstruction to Ehud Barak to arrive at the dream of peace with the Palestinians, now so close."