Silence surrounds D.C. peace talks

WASHINGTON, June 15 (JTA) — The White House is staying silent about what transpired at Thursday’s meeting between President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat here.

Before the meeting, Clinton would not comment on either the June 23 scheduled Israeli withdrawal from more of the West Bank or the Sept. 13 Palestinian-declared deadline for statehood.

“If we’re going to make peace, we’re going to have to deal with the difficult issues, and the less we say now the better, I think,” he said.

After the two leaders met in the Oval Office for nearly three hours — twice as long as had been scheduled, Arafat told reporters the discussion was “very fruitful” but did not give any specifics.

Reports from negotiating teams at the Bolling and Andrews Air Force bases have not been optimistic. Clinton said Wednesday that the Israelis and Palestinians “still had work to do” before a three-way summit with the United States could take place.

P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the process is “a marathon” and that time is not on the side of either Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Arafat.

Negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian teams broke off briefly Wednesday because of the Palestinians’ ongoing displeasure over a delay in the Israeli withdrawal and Israel’s reluctance to release Palestinian prisoners. Barak did make a goodwill gesture later, signaling he would release three Palestinian prisoners.

Arafat called the gesture “insulting” and said Barak lacked the desire to work toward a comprehensive peace.

“At this difficult time, and faced with the obstacles we are facing in the negotiations, we really do need the assistance and help of President Clinton,” Arafat said before leaving to have lunch with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Clinton spoke with Barak for 40 minutes Wednesday night.

The U.S. wants a three-way summit once there is a chance for agreement on issues for a final peace agreement, which include the future of Jerusalem, the borders of Palestinian territories, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

But a meeting between all parties to help move the process along may occur before a public and conclusive summit would take place, an official said.

Clinton also left no doubt that he still wants to bring about a Middle East settlement as part of his legacy.

“I want to finish the job, and I’d like to see it finished on time,” he said.

But Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said Thursday that there is “a very wide gap” between the Israeli and Palestinian positions and it is unlikely a final peace accord will be reached by a September deadline.

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