Clinton's heavy lifting keeps peace talks alive

Puffy-eyed from lack of sleep, hoarse from wheedling and shouting, the US President breathes life back into a failing summit
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The Independent Online

It was, in terms of pure showbusiness, unbeatable. The Camp David Middle East summit was over, had imploded in an apoplectic roar of counter-accusations. Bags were packed and the Chevy Suburbans were revving up outside the cabins deep in the Maryland woods; secret service men were clearing the way to the airport. This summit had ceased to be; it was extinct; it was an ex-summit.

It was, in terms of pure showbusiness, unbeatable. The Camp David Middle East summit was over, had imploded in an apoplectic roar of counter-accusations. Bags were packed and the Chevy Suburbans were revving up outside the cabins deep in the Maryland woods; secret service men were clearing the way to the airport. This summit had ceased to be; it was extinct; it was an ex-summit.

And then, puffy-eyed from lack of sleep, hoarse from wheedling and shouting, President Bill Clinton swept into the primary school in the village of Thurmont to announce that he had raised it from the dead.

Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, had agreed to stay on while the President flew to Japan to meet the leaders of the Group of Eight nations. One could almost hear the soaring music; it was pure Spielberg.

It was magnificent, but what does it really mean? In the cold light of day yesterday, scratched calculations of self-interest and political possibility will have taken some of the gloss off President Clinton's success. The parties may be talking but it is as clear as ever that there are real and serious issues involved here, and massive gaps to bridge. Talking is not enough.

Summit diplomacy is an exacting art, not a science. When Mr Barak sent a letter to Mr Clinton on Wednesday saying he was leaving, it could have been a tactical ploy to underline his resolution or it could have been a genuine blast of anger; or both. "Barak is preparing to return home at the soonest moment after it became clear to him that the Palestinians are not a true partner for peace," an Israeli official said.

But as the long day drew on, rain falling steadily over the Maryland woods, it became increasingly clear that what was going on at Camp David was damage limitation, not negotiation. There was no agreement on the future of Jerusalem, one of the key issues; and without that there was nothing.

The President was already looking at a loosely wrapped deal rather than a tight agreement; but even that was clearly out of reach. An agreement to disagree was not possible. Nor, it seemed, could they even agree to save the gains and meet later. This was total collapse. "The summit has come to a conclusion without reaching agreement," the White House said curtly at 10:50pm.

The President, some time in the mid-evening, began to float another possibility: that the leaders stayed on to talk with Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State. There was "a round of intensive consultations" between Mr Clinton, Mr Barak and Mr Arafat - "I think at least three times each," the spokesman said. Each delegation huddled; phone calls were made; and an hour after the summit was pronounced dead, it had been brought back to life.

Mr Clinton's press conference was a vintage performance. "These are in fundamental ways the hardest peace issues I have ever dealt with," he croaked. "But the short answer that we are still here after everybody thought we were through is that nobody wanted to give up. After all these years, as hard as these issues are, they don't want to give up, and I don't think we should give up. And so we're still plugging away."

This is the President's forte: one-to-one, close-in political work, the politics of personal persuasion. As he did at the Wye River talks, he called in his friends from the region. He spoke to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's new young monarch, King Abdullah, who spoke to Mr Arafat and Mr Barak.

But there will be little progress while Mr Clinton is away. Hard decisions will be made only when he is there. Ms Albright's authority is already declining fast.

And beyond that, is a deal feasible, and will it stick? The signals - not just from the damp cabins of Camp David, but from Jerusalem, from the West Bank and from Jewish settlers - were not good.

There is always a tendency in America to focus all attention on the President and his works; and for Mr Clinton, who has seen himself as a peacemaker since arriving in the White House, this is doubled. "The prospect of Clinton's imminent departure appeared to have concentrated minds in both delegations," The Washington Post reported.

But this is not about Mr Clinton and it is not about America. "No Palestinian leader would sign an agreement that would relegate his political sovereignty on Jerusalem and give it to the Israelis on a silver platter," said Khalil Foutah, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

"This is a major obstacle. The Palestinians came here with an open mind to sign a full agreement and we did our best, but the Israelis don't understand they can't have sovereignty over East and West Jerusalem - they can have West Jerusalem with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Anything less than that is not going to fly. That's it."

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