Subdued tone as Middle East summit starts

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are sitting around a negotiating table with US President Bill Clinton and other leaders as the emergency Middle East summit starts.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are sitting around a negotiating table with US President Bill Clinton and other leaders as the emergency Middle East summit starts.

Setting a subdued tone, none of the leaders spoke before reporters and photographers were ushered out of the session called to prod Barak and Arafat to stop violence in the West Bank and Gaza and to reopen peace talks.

With a little more than three months left in his presidency, Clinton still hopes to broker a peace accord. But for this summit, the most optimistic outlook is for a truce and a date set for new negotiations between the two sides.

Barak was first to arrive for the emergency summit at this Egyptian Red Sea spa, followed by Clinton and Arafat.

After a 10-hour flight from Washington, Clinton was followed down the steps of Air Force One by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Also at the emergency summit were King Abdullah of Jordan, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a European Union representative and other leaders.

Arafat, Barak and Clinton each met separately with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, host for the summit, before gathering with the others.

Barak told Mubarak that he would not pull back Israeli forces or reopen Palestinian areas until Arafat re-arrests dozens of militants released from Palestinian jails in recent days and tells security forces to stop shooting and participating in street rioting, according to a senior Israeli official.

With a little more than three months left in his presidency, Clinton's hopes for brokering a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians look unlikely to be met. For this summit, the most optimistic outlook is for a truce and a date set for new negotiations between the two sides.

Arafat, while agreeing reluctantly to the summit, showed no indication, publicly at least, of curbing his demands.

"We are on the way to Jerusalem until a Palestinian child raises the Palestinian flag on the walls of Jerusalem," he said Sunday.

Arafat's top adviser, Nabil Aburdeneh, said the two sides were now at a crossroads. "Either we return back to the way of peace or we continue this deadlock."

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said it would be hard to bridge the gap between the two sides. "I think there is a wide divide of misunderstanding, hostility and frustration," he told Israel Army radio.

Clinton hopes to return home in time for a memorial service Wednesday in Norfolk, Virginia, to honor the 17 U.S. sailors killed in an attack Thursday on a U.S. destroyer at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Setting the tone for the Untied States, Albright said Sunday that the peace process was the "only road" away from violence.

Clinton made calls to various Middle East leaders, and received a briefing from Albright and Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, before departing for Egypt.

He chatted animatedly with Albright and Berger as they boarded his helicopter en route to the airport.

Berger told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the president was going into the summit focused on stopping the violence.

"I have no illusions. This is a very difficult situation. Emotions and frustrations are very high on both sides," Berger said. "It will be difficult to resume negotiations for a peace agreement, I think, quickly. The most important thing here is to break this cycle of violence."

Albright told American television that the prospects for renewed peace negotiations are dim, but the United States hoped at least to persuade Arafat to assume more responsibility for calming inflamed tensions.

"He has made, in the past seven years, some important decisions for peace, but we now believe that he has to do more to control the violence," Albright said. "The peace process is the only road."

The senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, warned not to expect solutions at Sharm el-Sheikh, saying too much is being expected of Arafat.

"I think Mr. Barak went a long way in his exit strategy from the peace process," Erekat said. We will go to Sharm el-Sheikh hoping he is going to stop the war against us."

For his part, Barak laid out a list of objectives he wants from the summit talks, including the jailing again of Islamic terrorist suspects freed last week by the Palestinian Authority.

"In the end we will make peace with the Palestinians, but the current Palestinian leadership is now showing that it is finding it very difficult to make decisions related to an agreement," Barak told his Cabinet on Sunday.

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