Few Middle East watchers are expecting that President Clinton will be able to achieve this week what he failed to accomplish at July’s Camp David summit.
The future of Jerusalem remains as difficult an issue for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resolve, nor has the rhetoric emanating from each side been a source of optimism.
In recent days, officials from both sides have been saying they expect the other to show the flexibility needed to reach a final peace deal. But those same officials gave no indication that they themselves were ready to take such a step.
Two days before Clinton was to hold separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday at the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke of the need to come up with an agreement soon.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks must be concluded within a matter of weeks, he told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday.
“It does not have to be a matter of days, but it cannot be a matter of months,” said Barak, who is one of more than 150 world leaders visiting New York this week for the summit.
A deadline for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty comes next week, when the Palestinians have threatened to declare an independent Palestinian state. Palestinian officials, however, have indicated that the declaration will be postponed.
But more significant for Barak than the Sept. 13 date is the end of October, when the Knesset reconvenes from its summer recess. At that time, the viability of his already weakened coalition will be put to the test.
While in New York, Barak was expected to meet with numerous world leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Officials in Barak’s delegation were pessimistic that Clinton would be able to reach a breakthrough during his meetings with Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
One senior official traveling with Barak was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that Israel had launched a secret diplomatic effort to overcome the Jerusalem obstacle.
Meanwhile, an adviser to Arafat said that this week’s talks will prove decisive.
“Either we reach a formula that we can build on and negotiations resume, or we reach a deadlock,” said Nabil Abu Irdeineh.
If such a formula is found, he added, there could be a three-way meeting involving Clinton, Barak and Arafat.
Since the failure of the Camp David summit, both sides have accused the other of intransigence and sought international backing for their positions.
During his meeting with Annan on Monday, Barak thanked the secretary-general for his support of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May.
According to a U.N. statement, he also thanked Annan for helping Israel get membership in a regional grouping – the Western European and Others Group – a move that could ultimately give Israel more of a role in U.N. activities.
When it comes to prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Barak is cautious.
As he was entering the U.N. on Monday, he was asked about the prospects for a peace accord.
“I do hope, and I pray,” he replied. “But I don’t know.”