Summit launches final, decisive stage of Israeli-Palestinian talks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Under the guidance of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is entering its last, decisive phase - a 10-month quest for a final treaty.

Under the guidance of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is entering its last, decisive phase - a 10-month quest for a final treaty.

A two-day Mideast summit in Oslo, beginning Monday, sets the stage for arduous negotiations on Palestinian statehood, creating a new sense of urgency after weeks of delays and sluggish preparations.

Clinton was greeted by Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bonvevik and a few dignitaries after his plane, Air Force One, landed at Oslo's airport shortly after midnight Monday. When asked his feelings about meeting with Middle East leaders, Clinton said, "Very hopeful, very hopeful."

Clinton waved to a crowd of onlookers, noting that he paid his first visit to Norway 30 years ago. The White House said Clinton is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Norway.

Clinton, who hopes to capture a place in history as a peacemaker, was holding separate meetings later Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before meeting with them together on Tuesday.

"We are now at the point where really difficult decisions lie ahead," Clinton said. However, Clinton declined to comment specifically on what may happen at the summit. "Probably the less we say about it in public," the more will get done, he said.

A breakthrough on substance is unlikely, but Arafat and Barak will get a chance to sound each other out on key issues and may try to reach agreement on the format of the negotiations.

Barak spoke cautiously Sunday of a "feeling of possible momentum," while Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, said he hoped the summit would give negotiators the necessary nudge.

The emotional centerpiece of the summit is a memorial service Tuesday for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister gunned down Nov. 4, 1995, by an ultranationalist Jew trying to prevent the handover of West Bank land to the Palestinians.

Clinton, before departing for Oslo Sunday, called Rabin "one of the great heroes of this century."

"We will honor him by not only remembering his life but by pursuing his vision of a peaceful Middle East," Clinton said. "There are tremendous challenges ahead. I will do everything I can to help because peace in the Middle East is strongly in the interest of the American people."

All three leaders had forged close bonds with Rabin - Barak was his protege,former nemesis, later spoke of him as his "partner in peace."

The commemoration is a "symbolic victory over all those who wanted to jeopardize the peace process," said Israeli legislator Uri Savir, who helped set up the secret talks in Oslo that led to the 1993 breakthrough agreement of recognition between Israel and the PLO.

But the good will may not last.

Arafat's aides say his top priority in Oslo is win assurances from Clinton that Israel will slow or freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. The Palestinians say the settlements are illegal and meant to prevent them from realizing their dream of full independence in the West Bank.

The United States reiterated in September that settlements are "destructive" to peace, but has not publicly reprimanded Barak for approving new homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at a faster pace than his hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, Arafat has been careful not to threaten to suspend negotiations over the construction. Abbas would only say Sunday that settlement expansion "would be a major obstacle" to a treaty.

Barak, in turn, wants to redefine the basic goals of a peace agreement. He says the initial dream of close cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians aimed too high, and that the best the two peoples can hope for in the current tense climate is peaceful separation enforced by electric fences.

Such talk has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear their economy will whither if cut off from the Israeli markets. U.S. officials have warned the Israelis that a separation will hurt stability.

There may also be disagreements on the format on the negotiations.

Arafat is pressing Clinton to play an active role, feeling he needs U.S. help to face the Israelis. Barak opposes U.S. intervention, which could eventually put him at odds with a president determined to forge a historic treaty before the end of his term in November 2000.

Clinton has picked an agreement between Israel and the Arabs as his top foreign policy priority.

Barak wants to hold one-on-one talks with the Palestinian leader to formulate the outline of a peace treaty by a February deadline. An informal, open-ended negotiating session in Washington in January is being considered, Palestinian sources said.

Arafat hasn't decided yet, waiting to hear more from Barak and Clinton during the summit. For now, the two chief negotiators, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli diplomat Oded Eran are to meet Nov. 7 for a first round of negotiations.

Opening positions on the key issues - Palestinian independence, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the future of the settlements - have remained unchanged in six years.