President returns to bring new life to talks

Jerusalem remains the main sticking point as mounting tensions boil over into scuffles between Palestinians and Jewish hardliners
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The Independent Online

President Clinton rushed back to the presidential retreat at Camp David yesterday to resume his mediation of the 13-day-old Middle East peace talks, saying some headway had been made in his absence. With the tension at the talks and in the region mounting again, Israelis and Palestinians said they expected a swift result - success or failure - once Mr Clinton returned.

President Clinton rushed back to the presidential retreat at Camp David yesterday to resume his mediation of the 13-day-old Middle East peace talks, saying some headway had been made in his absence. With the tension at the talks and in the region mounting again, Israelis and Palestinians said they expected a swift result - success or failure - once Mr Clinton returned.

The US President left the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan, on Sunday morning, cutting short his schedule by a few hours. Officials in the United States tried to quash speculation that Mr Clinton's hasty return was precipitated either by hopes of a breakthrough or fears that the talks were again on the verge of collapse. They acknowledged, however, that the status of Jerusalem was still a major sticking point.

During Mr Clinton's two-day absence, mediation efforts were overseen by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, but how much talking actually took place is unclear. Not only is there a news blackout on the talks, but Mr Clinton's absence coincided with both Muslim and Jewish holy days.

Before leaving Japan, Mr Clinton struck a optimistic tone, saying there had been "a lot more sort of systematic effort in the groups on a lot of the issues. So whatever happens, I think they have continued to make headway." But he also girded himself against failure, insisting: "Whether we get an agreement or not, they have tried. They have really been up there working."

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt held talks in Saudi Arabia on the Israeli-Palestinian talks, meeting Crown Prince Abdullah in Taif before flying to Jeddah to see King Fahd.

The Camp David talks came close to collapse on Wednesday evening as Mr Clinton prepared to leave for Japan, but the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, were persuaded at the last moment to remain at in Maryland until Mr Clinton returned.

Israeli officials, however, sounded considerably less hopeful as they awaited Mr Clinton's return. One source said that Mr Barak was in a "very gloomy mood". His pessimism appears to have been fuelled by a succession of Palestinian statements insisting that Mr Arafat would settle for nothing less than full Palestinian sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967.

The first substantial leaks from the talks, late last week, suggested that the US was proposing a form of shared sovereignty for East Jerusalem and leaving the status of the Old City in abeyance for resolution in the future. But this appeared to be less than Mr Arafat could afford to take back with him and more than Mr Barak could afford to cede politically.

A briefing paper prepared by US officials for Mr Clinton's return was said to show progress on most of the so-called "core issues" - on the demarcation of borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, on security arrangements, on the future of Jewish settlements in occupied territory, and on the fate of the more than three million Palestinian refugees. No such progress, however, was reported on Jerusalem.

The strength of opposition to any partial deal was illustrated by a demonstration in Gaza on Saturday by thousands of supporters of the militant Islamic movement, Hamas, and by a fatwa - a religious edict - pronounced by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, forbidding Palestinian refugees from accepting money in return for forfeiting the right to return to their original homes in what is now Israeli territory.

And while a truce offer made yesterday by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, suggested the possibility of the group shifting ground, it was also distinctly double-edged. The truce proposal was a restatement of a three-year-old offer and was conditional on Israel's complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and all of Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel's best offer yet is for withdrawal from 95 per cent of occupied territory, but the Sheikh not only failed to include any pledge to recognise the state of Israel, but coupled his truce offer with an appeal to Palestinian negotiators to "pull out of this summit, which would result in a great loss to the Palestinian people".

* Some 70 Palestinian-Americans scuffled and exchanged insults with Jewish settlers - many of them also American - when they toured the divided West Bank town of Hebron yesterday. The fighting broke out when the tour group of Palestinian-Americans tried to cross into the city's Jewish enclave. "You are criminals, you are Nazis," the settlers, among the hardest-line in the West Bank, shouted in English. "Get off of our land," the Palestinian-Americans yelled back, also in English: "We are here. It's our land."

Pushing and shoving broke out between the two groups. Local Palestinians joined in, trying to protect the Palestinian-Americans. Hebron has been the scene of repeated clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians.

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