Monday’s mini-summit between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in the Israeli leader’s home provided another lifesaving jolt to the gasping peace process.
But in Washington, where high-level talks resumed this week between the parties and American negotiators, there was little optimism about a complete recovery.
Administration officials said they hoped their separate meetings with the two negotiating teams would lead to direct talks between them, but admitted that for now, at least, their goal is simply to maintain an ongoing process that they hope will avert further deterioration.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart echoed that message of low expectations when he told reporters Tuesday that the purpose of the meetings was “to make sure that the parties continue their discussions with each other, and
that we continue to play a role in trying to bridge the differences between them.”
The tight time frame made it even less likely the talks, which are being held at a Washington hotel, would produce any breakthroughs.
The six-person Israeli delegation, headed by acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, “hopes to spend Rosh HaShanah with their families,” said an Israeli official. That means this round of talks is likely to end by Thursday.
Monday’s Barak-Arafat meeting at the Israeli prime minister’s home in Kochav Yair produced no breakthrough, spokesmen for both sides said, but it may have helped restore a measure of trust to the strained personal relationship between the two leaders.
U.S. negotiators reportedly will not offer a position paper that was expected to include “bridging proposals” on Jerusalem, in part because the two sides were too far apart, but also because of political complications. [However Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said the two sides would be presented with bridging proposals by American mediators. He said President Bill Clinton had signed off on the document last Friday and suggested that the parties review it rather than first making it public.]
“The U.S. is very worried about the idea of publicly presenting bridging proposals,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former top Israeli journalist.
Makovsky said that in the hypersensitive region, proposals intended only to trigger discussions would inevitably be seen as shifts in U.S. policy.
“And you have an explosive domestic political environment in this country, with the [Senate] election in New York and also for president,” he said. “If the U.S. is too public on issues such as Jerusalem, it could have domestic political ramifications.” Reports in Israel have suggested that President Clinton has been reluctant to offer controversial suggestions that might break the deadlock for fear of a Jewish backlash against his wife in her Senate race.
A safer strategy, Makovsky said, is to use quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations to probe for common ground. Only if some is found will Washington try to arrange a new summit to press for a final agreement.
But the outlook is not bright, he said. There are still differences on all major issues, including Jerusalem, refugees, territory and security.
The U.S. effort has become all the more urgent because of backtracking from the taboo-breaking Camp David summit — and because time is running out for the Clinton administration.
The time factor has led officials here to press for a partial agreement. Administration officials say that may be the only way to keep the peace process from unraveling entirely.
Recently Barak signaled that he might consider a partial deal, but only if it is coupled to a timetable for resolving outstanding issues, starting with Jerusalem.
But most observers say it will be extraordinarily difficult for Barak — already fighting for his political life — to sell voters on a partial agreement that cements Palestinian territorial gains without offering a genuine end to the half-century-old conflict.
Equally difficult from the standpoint of Israeli politics is the proposal to give sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
“Barak is going way out on a limb with that,” said an official with a major pro-Israel group here. “Israel’s people have a long history — and a justified one — of distrusting the United Nations.”
Another wild card is Barak’s precarious political standing. The Knesset is moving forward with efforts to require a 61-vote majority to approve any agreement that includes changes in control over Jerusalem. Barak also faces a vote for early election when the Knesset reconvenes at the end of the month.
“He doesn’t have much latitude,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “He has already given most of what he could give. But there could be some give and take around the margins.”
And Barak remains convinced that if a final status deal is signed, even many Israelis who oppose some of its details will support it in the promised referendum, he said.
“When comes down to voting yes or no on ending the conflict that has plagued their lives, they’ll probably go for it,” he said. “The whole of peace is far more than the sum of its parts.”
The impending U.S. elections may also be a factor for Arafat.
Palestinian officials have hinted that he may believe he can get a better deal if he waits until after the Nov. 7 elections, when a lame duck President Clinton might be more willing to press Israel to make additional concessions.
That, Smerling said, “would be a big mistake; it’s always a mistake for the Arab side to bet on the U.S. pushing Israel.”