Israel braces for turmoil after summit failure

JERUSALEM, July 26 (JTA) — With the failure of the Camp David summit, Israelis are bracing for a political shift and increased tensions with the Palestinians.

But the future of the peace process remains uncertain.

The White House did not rule out the possibility of another summit, but spokesman Joe Lockhart said Wednesday that there are currently no plans “to bring the leaders back for a session with the president.”

The coming days and weeks will witness a complex interplay between events in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas. How these events will come together is difficult to predict.

Speculation is now rampant over what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s next steps will be — whether he will seek a national unity government with the Likud Party opposition, try to rebuild his coalition or seek early elections.

Upon his return to Israel on Wednesday, Barak held out the possibility of more talks with the Palestinians.

“Today I return from Camp David, look in the millions of eyes on whose behalf I went, and say with a crushed heart, we have not succeeded — for now,” Barak said at a state welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport.

At the same time, however, he left little doubt as to who he blames for the summit’s failure.

“We did not succeed because our neighbors, the Palestinians, have not yet internalized that for a true peace they must concede on some of their dreams,” Barak said. “They have to give, not just demand.”

Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who attended the Camp David summit, said Wednesday in New York that the onus is now on the Palestinians to take the next step in the peace process.

Rubinstein — who Barak sent to New York to provide Jewish leaders with insight into what transpired at the summit — said at a new conference that despite the ultimate failure of the talks, dialogue would continue.

“We are not going away. The Palestinians are not going away,” he said. “But I think now it’s their turn.”

When he announced the summit’s failure on Tuesday, President Clinton said the talks had foundered over the issue of Jerusalem.

Cabinet minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was a member of the Israeli delegation at the summit, said a day later that when it came to Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat “presented himself not as the national and political leader of the Palestinians, but as an Islamic leader.”

Upon his return to the Gaza Strip from the summit, Arafat portrayed himself as the defender of the Arab and Muslim world’s interests in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is not only for the Palestinians. It is for the Palestinians, for the Arab nation, for the Christians and for Muslims everywhere,” he said Wednesday after receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands of Palestinians.

“Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, like it or not,” Arafat said.

Using one of his favorite expressions, he added, “Whoever does not like it, let him go and drink from the Sea of Gaza.”

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, acknowledged there may be some violence in the days ahead.

“Down one road is confrontation and conflict,” he said. “Down the other road is an agreement and peace.”

At a news conference immediately after the summit’s collapse on Tuesday, Barak said, his voice heavy with fatalistic resolve, that the people of Israel “will know how to unite in the face of danger.”

The tenor of his remarks seemed to indicate he expects more strife ahead, rather than more diplomatic efforts to bridge gaps that proved unbridgeable during the summit.

In Jerusalem, seasoned political observers said he was referring to political strife, not military conflict.

They said Barak’s talk of danger and unity was a hint about forming a national unity government with Likud.

Other Israelis, as well as some American and Palestinian pundits, preferred to focus on a comment that Clinton made Tuesday.

In his own post-summit news conference, Clinton said the issues discussed at Camp David needed “to percolate” for some time before their full effect could be gauged and the way forward clearly seen.

In particular, Clinton said, a debate had already begun within Israel over the issue of Jerusalem, which he described as the “most difficult problem” blocking Israel and the Palestinians from reaching an agreement at Camp David.

Barak, too, welcomed the “significant and legitimate debate” regarding Jerusalem that the summit has triggered within Israel.

Barak sounded a defiant note at his news conference Tuesday, saying he had done everything he could to try to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

He also said Israel’s positions “received full legitimacy from the American government” — a claim that was backed up by Clinton, who indicated at his news conference that the Israeli side was more willing to compromise than the Palestinians.

While he praised both sides for making “progress on all the core issues,” the president said “it is fair to say” that Barak “moved forward from his initial position more” than Arafat.

Pressure is likely to build, observers noted, with the approach of the Sept. 13 deadline the two sides had agreed on for reaching a final agreement.

In his public comments on both Tuesday and Wednesday, the future that Barak was not willing to comment on, however, was his political one.

Barak was elected last year on a platform of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. He found himself on the eve of Camp David without a parliamentary majority. Three political parties walked out of the government in protest against the negotiations with the Palestinians and concessions they presumed Barak would make.

Significantly, no members of those parties were present at Wednesday’s airport welcoming ceremony for Barak.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Barak sought to deflect questions on his next political steps. But despite his efforts to skirt the question in the public arena, Israel’s political sphere was already positioning itself for the anticipated new political reality.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky, who pulled out of Barak’s coalition before the start of the Camp David summit, said he would back a unity government.

For his part, however, Likud leader Ariel Sharon said the only course now is to hold new elections. Sharon convened a meeting of opposition leaders on Wednesday to set strategy in the wake of the failed Camp David talks.

Meanwhile, there is concern about how the summit’s failure will play among Palestinians.

For weeks, observers have warned that its failure could lead to an outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said Tuesday the army was prepared for anything.

Israeli media reported after the summit collapsed, Mofaz assessed the situation and there did not appear to be any immediate need to beef up forces in the Palestinian territories.

Shortly after the suspension of the summit was announced, Hamas called on Arafat to return to armed struggle against Israel.

“The solution now is that Mr. Arafat and the negotiators declare the failure and futility of the entire peace process and return to the path of resistance and jihad,” or holy war, senior Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantissi told reporters.

“I renew my request to give Hamas a five-year chance to work its jihad and resistance. Within five years, Hamas will be able to achieve the gradual liberation of all of Palestine,” he said.

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