WASHINGTON (Oct. 20)
Failure at this week’s U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks was not an option for President Clinton.
Senior U.S. officials said as much after Clinton had invested more than 50 hours of his time — and canceled two crucial Democratic party fund-raising trips — to try to convince Israel and the Palestinians to end 19 months of stalemate and get their 5-year-old peace process back on track.
Just what kind of success Clinton could claim, if any, remained in doubt late Tuesday as negotiators continued working toward an accord.
Presidential summits usually have preordained outcomes. But this session had many hurdles for the parties to clear before Clinton could declare success.
In his efforts to secure a deal, Clinton had pulled out all the stops.
He stationed his secretary of state at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, the site of the talks that opened Oct. 15. Clinton also brought Vice President Al Gore to the meetings, and he encouraged Jordan’s King Hussein to literally get off his sick bed in Minnesota, where he has been receiving chemotherapy for cancer, and join the talks.
For the White House, the overriding concern is that catastrophe looms if the interim accords expire May 4 without progress, U.S. officials said.
That’s when Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat plans to unilaterally declare statehood. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said such a move would free his hand to annex West Bank territory, a move that would certainly unleash more violence.
With this in mind, Clinton decided to take a great risk by bringing Netanyahu and Arafat together for an open-ended summit.
Chief among the obstacles were Israel’s deep concerns about security and the absence of trust between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
A Palestinian terrorist attack Monday that left at least 66 wounded at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba prompted Israel to once again press the Palestinian Authority to commit to specific steps against terrorism.
At the same time, the fact that U.S. officials needed to be present at nearly all Israeli-Palestinian meetings during the Wye summit gave proof to the absence of trust.
Reflecting the atmosphere that prevailed, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon refused to shake Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand. Sharon, who has refused to change his belief that Arafat is a terrorist with blood on his hands, ignored Arafat when the Palestinian leader stood and saluted him at their first encounter at the talks.
The Wye talks centered around a U.S.-proposed plan for a phased 13 percent Israeli redeployment from the West Bank in exchange for concrete Palestinian security guarantees.
The deal would commit the sides to begin final-status talks on the critical questions of Palestinian statehood, settlements and Jerusalem. Before this week’s summit, U.S. officials had received informal Palestinian assurances that ongoing final-status talks would avert a declaration of statehood.
U.S. officials also were working to conclude an agreement on numerous outstanding issues, including the opening of a Palestinian airport, a Gaza industrial zone, release of Palestinian prisoners and safe-passage routes from the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip to areas under their control in the West Bank.
Israel, which had agreed in principle to the 13 percent redeployment figure, was focusing its demands almost exclusively on Palestinian fulfillment of previous promises, including a crackdown on Hamas, confiscation of illegal weapons and cutbacks of their police force to limits set forth in previous Israeli-Palestinian accords. Israel also demanded that the Palestinians extradite terrorist suspects to Israel and amend their covenant which calls for the destruction of Israel.
The CIA was expected to play a critical role in the monitoring of the security package and would field complaints from both sides. CIA Director George Tenet attended most of the security-oriented talks at the summit.
A codified role for the CIA would mark a new shift of power in the region where until now agreements have focused on direct Israeli-Palestinian security committees without outside mediation.
The Beersheba terror attack, carried out by a lone Hamas member who threw two grenades in the crowded bus station, highlighted the centrality of security to the peace process.
The attack sent negotiators at Wye scrambling.
Netanyahu broke a media blackout to vow to announce that he would restrict the talks exclusively to Palestinian security guarantees. U.S. officials convinced Netanyahu and Arafat to sign off on a joint statement condemning terror and pledging to continue the peace process.
negotiating table. But many outstanding issues remained unresolved late Tuesday.
In previous agreements, Israel had committed to another redeployment, in addition to the 13 percent currently under discussion. The Palestinians are demanding another sizeable chunk of West Bank territory. The U.S. also wants firm Israeli commitments to confine the expansion of West Bank settlements.
On the financial side, Israel is said to have asked for some $500 million to finance the redeployment of its forces and the construction of West Bank bypass roads. The Palestinian Authority is also making new financial demands. Their international aid package agreed to after the initial Oslo peace accord signing in 1993 is set to expire.
While details of the elusive deal remained secret under a media blackout, sources said that by late Tuesday the United States had drafted numerous side letters to the Israelis and Palestinians detailing commitments that each side had made to Clinton. Confidential appendices to a draft of an agreement had already been written before the talks began last week.
Even if the two sides reached an agreement for a White House signing ceremony, the Wye summit did not provide the boost of good will that the American hosts hoped would emerge from the bucolic setting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
After an initial private meeting, Netanyahu and Arafat only met when U.S. officials were present. And after the Beersheba attack, Arafat picked up the telephone to call the Israeli premier to condemn the act of terrorism — even though Arafat’s villa was a couple of hundred yards from where Netanyahu was staying and he could have conveyed his message in person.