After eight days of tough negotiations on a host of thorny final-status issues, it was not surprising that the deal-breaker issue of Jerusalem set the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David spinning into crisis on Wednesday.
With Israeli officials saying the Palestinians had shown no flexibility on the Jerusalem question, Prime Minister Ehud Barak threatened to leave the presidential retreat on Wednesday.
“The Palestinians are not yet ready to accept hard decisions that are required,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. “Israel did not and will never accept an unreasonable demand from the other side.”
At press time, it was unclear if Barak was using the threat to leave on Wednesday evening to blast through the Jerusalem impasse, or if it signaled a genuine end to the troubled talks.
“These discussions are continuing,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart on Wednesday. “We wouldn’t stay if we didn’t think there was some chance of having a productive day.”
The crisis caused President Bill Clinton to put off his scheduled trip to a G-8 economic summit in Okinawa, giving negotiators one more chance to cut through the conflicting red lines entangling negotiations over Israel’s capital.
“The next 24 hours are going to be the toughest in the life of Ehud Barak,” said Colette Avital, a member of the Knesset from the prime minister’s One Israel Party. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.
“This is the most crucial 24 hours in our lives. We either make it or break it. If they make an historic compromise, it would bring about statehood for the Palestinians. For us, it would end 100 years of war,” said Avital, who was in Manhattan to await the outcome of the talks at Camp David.
During this week’s talks, Israel reportedly agreed to allow Palestinian autonomy in some East Jerusalem neighborhoods and to expand the city to incorporate both Palestinian suburbs such as Abu Dis and Jewish settlements such as Maaleh Adumim.
But Arafat, under mounting domestic political pressure, continued to demand full sovereignty for East Jerusalem, which he insisted would be the capital of the Palestinian state that he plans to proclaim in September, with or without an agreement.
Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer and one of the architects of the original 1993 Oslo agreement, said he was not surprised that it was Jerusalem that touched off the summit’s biggest crisis.
“From the start, Jerusalem has always been considered the toughest nut to crack out of a group of difficult issues that were left at Oslo for the final negotiations,” he said.
There were also reports negotiators had agreed on Israeli support for a demilitarized Palestinian state and a formulation in which Israel would express regret for the plight of Palestinian refugees, but not assume legal responsibility. Other reports suggested that Barak has agreed to accept up to 100,000 Palestinian refugees in a one-time goodwill gesture.
But as many Mideast experts had predicted, it was the issue of Jerusalem that threatened Clinton’s plan to wrap up a deal before his departure Wednesday for the Far East. Late Tuesday night, a White House spokesman announced the delay in Clinton’s travel plans, saying it “is in the best interests of the Middle East peace process.”
Negotiators, led by Clinton, worked through the night on Monday and Tuesday in an attempt to move the talks forward. U.S. negotiators shuttled back and forth between delegations, and Clinton met with Arafat and Barak individually. By Wednesday, Arafat and Barak had met with each other only twice during the summit, which began July 11.
That, seasoned Mideast observers said, was not unexpected; the two leaders were expected to keep their direct negotiations at a minimum until a deal was about to be completed.
The press blackout surrounding the talks at the presidential retreat continued, with official White House and State Department spokesmen keeping reporters on a starvation diet. But both sides used telephone conversations with officials back in the region to telegraph their concerns and provide political spin for their domestic constituencies.
Administration spokesmen repeatedly referred to the talks as “intense” and “difficult,” but refused to confirm that a crisis had been reached over the Jerusalem issue.
There were reports Arafat had threatened to bolt the talks on Friday, also because of the Jerusalem issue.
A veteran peace process observer said that “an agreement is not possible without a major crisis — but that a crisis does not necessarily mean a breakthrough.”
As the deadline neared for an agreement, anxiety ran high among those on both sides of the Israeli political spectrum. Everyone was keenly aware of the gravity of the situation.
Avital said she was confident that Barak was up to the task of negotiating a peace treaty that would provide the security Israel needs. And she had faith in Arafat’s ability to make the tough decisions.
“He’s the only one who can make them, and he wants to go down in history as the one who delivered statehood [to the Palestinian people],” said Avital. “They will have crossed the desert with him, and I don’t know anyone else in the Palestinian Authority who can make those decisions.”
She said if Barak and Arafat fail to leave Camp David with a peace accord, Barak, who would return to Israel without a coalition government, would assemble a unity government with the opposition Likud Party.
“Likud would be more than glad to have a new government and not have to deal with the peace process [involving the Palestinians],” said Avital, who said the new government would concentrate on social issues and seek to strike a peace accord with Syria.
But Uzi Landau, a prominent Likud Knesset member, said Tuesday: “I don’t see how on earth we could go into a coalition with them.” He said Barak’s policies with respect to ceding nearly all of the Golan Heights, the land along the Jordan River, and nearly returning to the June 1967 borders that former Labor Foreign Minister Abba Eban called “Auschwitz borders” are incompatible with Likud positions.
“These were the positions of the Communists and the Arabs 30 years ago,” said Landau. “They are positions that the Israeli public regard as close to treason. We will not join such a government. We will only join a government that promotes a Zionist and a Jewish state.”
Were Barak to bring back to the Knesset a peace deal based upon these positions, Landau predicted, “it would not pass. There would be no chance.”
But Avital said Barak’s position on the Golan does not appear to be all that different from the last Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. She said he had used Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as an emissary to Syria and that he had been willing to make major concessions regarding the Golan in return for peace with Syria.
“So the idea to give up a majority if not all of the Golan Heights [for peace] is not a stranger to Netanyahu,” she said.
Former Interior Minister Natan Sharansky has said that Barak told him that if he failed to reach a peace accord at Camp David, Barak believed the possibility of a unity government would “become much more real.” Sharansky himself has been pushing for one.
Landau, in a cell phone conversation while he drove to the press center for the Camp David summit, said that based upon leaks from the talks, “it seems as if the prime minister wants a deal at all costs. It appears he is not prepared to honor all of the commitments he made to the Israeli public at large.”
Landau was also critical of Clinton, saying that he was so anxious to achieve success at the talks before flying to Japan to meet leaders of the leading industrial nations that he used “brutal pressure on us.”
“Everybody wants peace, but what is it going to get you if the agreement is not the end of the story but the beginning of a new one?” he asked. “And Arafat has a history of violating almost every agreement he signs.”
“Since Oslo, he has not fulfilled even one commitment to us,” Landau added, referring to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Avital raised the possibility of a conflict involving the referendum Barak has promised on any peace pact. She said there are those in Israel supported by Likud who want the referendum to pass only if it is approved by a majority of all eligible voters. But that would include Israelis in hospitals, living abroad and otherwise unable to vote.
“You’d never get a majority,” said Avital.
She said she and others supportive of Barak believe a referendum should be decided by a majority of the people who voted.
Avital said that unless sovereign land of Israel was given up as part of a peace deal, a referendum is not legally required. And she noted that it is up to the Knesset to schedule a referendum. But Barak can unilaterally declare new elections and say that a vote for him is a vote in support of the peace deal. In fact, she said, it is likely Barak would call new elections rather than hold a referendum.
A poll in Israel last week showed 53 percent of Israelis trusted Barak to bring back a good agreement and 60 percent favored peace proposals that had been discussed for weeks.
A poll released this week by the Arab-American Institute of 890 likely American voters found that 43.5 percent believe Jerusalem should be divided or shared by Israel and the Palestinians; 22 percent favored keeping it entirely under Israeli sovereignty.
Israel’s acting president, Avraham Burg, told The Jewish Week before returning to Israel last week that he found that “the overwhelming majority of Jews [in Israel] are more than ready to give peace a chance. They are saying, ‘Wow, maybe this is the time.’ ”
Barak, said Avital, has such public support that he would be re-elected prime minister. And besides, she said, “he doesn’t have any good competition.” She said Likud chairman Ariel Sharon “doesn’t have any chance” in a head-to-head election with Barak.
“Likud is torn and will have to have primaries,” she said, adding that no matter who is selected, Barak would win.
James D. Besser is the Washington correspondent. Stewart Ain is a staff writer.