Summit aims to resuscitate peace

Clinton opens face-to-face talks
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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan began their unscripted emergency summit here yesterday to salvage peace in the Middle East, amid some signs of Israeli readiness to negotiate on key issues, but with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Mr Clinton opened the summit by praising the leaders for attending at short notice. "No one wants to turn back," he said of the faltering peace process. He told reporters that the summit would conclude today with a statement but gave no indication what impact it might have. "I don't want to say anything that will make our task harder."

The discussions, planned to last two days, began with a series of bilateral meetings in the Oval Office between Mr Clinton and first King Hussein of Jordan, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and finally Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman.

After that, the four were due to meet as a group before breaking up for separate, more detailed discussions at Blair House, just across from the White House. The discussions were being superintended by Warren Christopher, United States Secretary of State, and Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's top Middle East specialist.

But as the parties got down to business, US officials were holding out no promise of any breakthrough. No specific agenda exists, and such is the mutual suspicion between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat that they might not be able to meet face-to-face without intermediaries.

The most hopeful noises have come from Mr Netanyahu, who on his way here indicated a readiness to negotiate on withdrawal from Hebron, easier border passage for Palestinians with jobs in Israel, and the opening of an airport in the Gaza Strip.

But as usual he offered no concessions, and remains adamant that the tunnel near the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem will stay open - a stance that both kept President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt away from the meetings and casts doubt over whether anything can be achieved here this week. The peace process was in "a very bad way right now", White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

With the stakes raised higher still for Mr Clinton by the approaching US presidential elections, Washington is deliberately taking a minimalist view of proceedings. Given the level of mistrust between them, even a frosty public handshake by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat will be presented as a measurable diplomatic success.

US officials hope the two men can find a formula to end the violence in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and agree to give new impetus to talks aimed at implementing existing peace accords. These have been dragging on for months, getting nowhere. On the tunnel, the best hope is for an international commission to examine the problem.

In a further effort to promote progress here, the White House has asked participants to make no public comment on the talks before they wrap up tonight. Whether that gag rule holds is questionable, however, and senior foreign policy advisers to Republican candidate Bob Dole are showing no such restraint.

Mr Dole says merely that the US should not pressure "our friend" Israel into unilateral concessions, and should confine itself to the role of honest broker. But former defense secretary Dick Cheney and other Dole foreign policy experts on Monday unleashed a public barrage at Mr Clinton, saying that the unravelling of the Middle East peace accords - one of the President's most trumpeted foreign policy successes - proved his incompetence in foreign affairs.