On the eve of what may be make-or-break Middle East peace talks, President Clinton said Monday that the best hope for resolving one of the world’s most daunting disputes is the growing realization by Israeli and Palestinian leaders that it is more dangerous to do nothing than it is to act.
“It’s going to be a difficult process, but the fact that they’re coming means that we’ve still got a chance,” Clinton said of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The two leaders will join Clinton today at Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in the mountains of western Maryland.
Acknowledging that it will be difficult for either Barak or Arafat to make the sort of compromises that are necessary, Clinton said Barak and Arafat agreed to the summit because “they think that the price of not doing it is greater than the risk of going forward.”
Barak left for Washington late Monday after narrowly turning back a parliamentary no-confidence vote brought by lawmakers concerned that he would yield too much at the summit. The Palestinian leader faced no such formal censure, but recent polls indicate that the Palestinian public is losing confidence in his ability to make peace.
So both Barak and Arafat will be engaged in two sets of negotiations this week--with each other and with public opinion back home. If Camp David produces an agreement, the two men will face the challenge of winning approval of the pact by referendum.
Alluding to that two-step process, Clinton said Barak and Arafat “have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability and the sheer guts to do what it takes . . . to reach an agreement, and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.”
Joel Singer, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator who is now a partner in a Washington law firm, said the Israeli Cabinet and parliament have protested every peace agreement since the 1978 Camp David conference produced an accord with Egypt. After every conference with the Arabs, some Cabinet members quit, charging that the prime minister of the day “gave away the store,” he said.
But he said the public eventually backed each of the peace pacts.
“Agreements change the perception of the public,” he said. “Sometimes the public is quicker to adjust to a new situation than the parliament.”
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and expert on the Arab world, said Palestinian voters probably would approve a peace agreement, although he added that Arafat has not yet begun to prepare public opinion for possible compromises. He said polls in the West Bank and Gaza show “high support for the peace process but declining confidence in Arafat.”
On the table at Camp David will be the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: territory and borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, water resources and security.
The positions of the Israelis and Palestinians are well established--and well understood by the other side. Lower-level negotiators deadlocked on those issues, but U.S. officials said Barak and Arafat might be able to bridge the gaps--possibly with the help of Clinton, who plans to suggest compromises.
“Both sides have a pretty clear idea of what the various options are,” Clinton said. ". . . I think that they need to listen to each other, and I need to listen to them, and we need to get right after it because it’s not as if we don’t know what’s out there to be done.”
The latest Camp David conference invites comparisons with the 1978 meeting at the presidential retreat that led to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, the first with any Arab state. Then, as now, the site was selected because of its informal, rustic setting and because it can be cut off from the outside world behind a high fence topped with razor wire.
President Carter remained at Camp David throughout the almost two weeks of that conference, as did Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. This time, the White House says Clinton will leave the talks from time to time to attend to business in Washington. Also, Clinton is scheduled to leave for the Group of 8 summit in Okinawa on July 19, in effect limiting the summit to a little more than a week.
Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a participant in the first Camp David conference, said the shorter time span “worries me a lot.” He said, “You can’t achieve agreement in eight days.”
Most Middle East experts said it is unlikely that Barak and Arafat can reach complete agreement on all of the issues during this conference. But most said they might be able to agree on the general outlines of a pact to be completed later, either at another summit or by lower-level negotiators.
One Israeli source predicted agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state, although border disputes might remain. This source said agreement also is possible on security issues. But he said there is little chance Barak and Arafat can resolve the most emotional issue: the future of Jerusalem. Israel insists it will never agree to a division of the city that was split between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians want to establish their capital in the city’s predominantly Arab neighborhoods.