Clinton warns there is not a moment to lose in Middle East talks

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Bill Clinton made an impassioned plea yesterday to the Palestinians and Israel to seal a peace deal, warning the United Nations millennium summit that time was running out and there was "not a moment to lose".

Bill Clinton made an impassioned plea yesterday to the Palestinians and Israel to seal a peace deal, warning the United Nations millennium summit that time was running out and there was "not a moment to lose".

The United States President, who hosted the failed Camp David summit in July, said the two sides still had the chance to strike a deal, but "like all life's chances, it is fleeting and about to pass". Yet there was little yesterday to encourage the outgoing President, who has long dreamt of crowning his two terms in office with a Middle East agreement.

As kings, presidents, premiers and potentates gathered, the still stateless Yasser Arafat was declaring that he had no intention of compromising over the Muslim and Christian sacred sites in Jerusalem's old city. The issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem - which the Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital - is the biggest single stumbling block in the stalled negotiations.

"I will not be flexible concerning the holy places because the holy places are not only Palestinian," he told reporters in New York, where he and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, were due to have separate talks with President Clinton later in the day. "It's Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim holy places, and everybody has to respect it."

Mr Arafat arrived in the United States amid a barrage of pressure from Mr Barak to accept his terms for a deal, finally ending the process that began with the Oslo accords seven years ago. The Americans have mostly refrained from publicly joining in the arm-twisting, although Mr Clinton made clear after Camp David that he felt Mr Arafat bore the brunt of the blame for its collapse.

Yesterday, Mr Barak continued the onslaught with a speech in which he appealed to Mr Arafat to join him in the "difficult process of reconciliation". Israel, he said, had shown it could make painful decisions. It "remained to be seen whether our counterparts are also capable of rising to the magnitude of the hour", he said.

Israel's strategy has been to portray Mr Arafat as "unrealistic" and unreasonably intransigent. No mention is made of the concessions that he has already made. The agreements reached at Camp David were not binding, but there is no doubt that Mr Arafat has conceded Israeli sovereignty over several big Jewish settlements on the West Bank, although they are illegal under international law. He also agreed during the 15-day summit that the Israeli army would continue to have a presence in the Jordan Valley, that Israeli jets could fly over his territory, and that the new Palestine would be without a fully fledged army.

In particular, Mr Barak has been trying to pressure Mr Arafat into a deal by summoning up the spectre of the right-wing Likud party. Stripped of his majority in the Knesset, he has hinted that he could seek to form an emergency government of national unity with Likud, if peace negotiations fail. No one appears to be buying it, not least because the party's chairman, Ariel Sharon, has repeatedly made clear that he is not interested.

Although Israel has by far the strongest hand, Mr Arafat does have one card to use in the short term. His recent globe-trotting confirmed that it would be disastrous to go ahead with his plan unilaterally to declare a state on Wednesday because he lacked international support and it would certainly draw US and Israeli reprisals.

The Palestinian Central Council - the mini-parliament he controls - will go through the motions of debating the issue when it meets in Gaza this weekend, but is certain to settle on a postponement. Having mollified a despairing public by appearing to be tough on Israel, he has bought time.

Mr Barak does not have this luxury. In July, his coalition collapsed when three parties quit, claiming he was about to give too much to the Palestinians. He has so far failed to build a new one. The clock is ticking towards next month's return of the Knesset. Mr Sharon is said to be only one vote short of the 61 required to bring down the government. And Mr Barak has no desire for early elections unless he has a peace deal to flourish at the electorate.

In the long run Mr Arafat probably knows Mr Barak is his best bet in a world where he has no desirable choices. But he will be tempted to make his Israeli counterpart sweat it out for a week or two more.