Crisis Deepens in Final Hours of Marathon Mideast Peace Summit
The Middle East summit plunged into crisis as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote a letter of regrets to President Bill Clinton and his delegation packed their bags, leaving the US hosts scrambling for a deal ahead of a dawn Thursday deadline.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas left the marathon negotiations Wednesday to attend his son's wedding saying "of course there is a crisis."
"The gaps are still wide, but they are still talking," said Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, the principal Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo accords and PLO secretary general.
Israeli delegates received orders to leave the Camp David peace parley and board a plane late Wednesday for Tel Aviv, according to a copy of the notice obtained by AFP.
The flight was to take off at 8 p.m. (0000 GMT Thursday) from Andrews Air base, near Washington, but Israeli journalists due to board the prime minister's flight were later informed it had been delayed for several hours. The order noted the timetable could change.
Barak gave Clinton the letter Wednesday regretting Palestinian unwillingness to take a historic decision for peace, a senior Israeli source said.
The White House confirmed Clinton had received a letter from Barak, but would not unveil the contents.
"Barak wrote that to his sorrow he reached the conclusion that the Palestinian side is not negotiating in good faith and is not willing to negotiate in a serious and substantive way on permanent peace between us," the source told AFP.
"If there are no last-minute developments the Palestinians will have to bear the responsibility of the tragic consequences of missing such an opportunity," for peace, he added.
Barak warned in the letter, aimed at Israeli public opinion, that a summit failure may lead to a serious outbreak of violence.
Israel and the Palestinians have agreed that Jerusalem has proved the main stumbling block. Palestinian officials say Israel has refused to cede more than municipal autonomy over a few Arab neighborhoods of the holy city which they want to share as a capital.
The White House had, however, earlier denied that the talks were on the verge of breakdown, saying it had not received any notification that Barak was planning to leave and stressed that talks continued.
Clinton met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on Wednesday after another late night of bargaining, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. Barak then also had bilateral talks with Clinton, the Israeli source said.
Clinton, who delayed a trip to Japan to extend the summit, still believed there was a chance to forge peace.
"The president made a judgment that the issues here are important enough and the stakes are high enough ... that he would take the extra day to see what additional work could be done," Lockhart said at the summit press center near the presidential retreat.
But he allowed that even after eight days of round-the-clock talks it remained an "open question" whether the Israelis and Palestinians would strike an accord.
"It's a question of whether the parties are going to be willing to step up and take the difficult decisions for peace."
Clinton would fly out "sometime before the sun comes up tomorrow," he added.
Lockhart went out of his way to try to knock down widespread reports of discontent among the delegations. "That just has no reflection of what's going on," he said. "What is going on is these discussions are continuing."
At the same time the Palestinians said they would be willing to stay at the table until the US hosts decided to end the talks.
"There is no progress on any of the issues," a Palestinian official with access to his side's team at Camp David told AFP, complaining that Barak was negotiating as if "he wants to swallow up all of Jerusalem."
He added that Israel was refusing to budge from its pre-summit line that it would accept no responsibility for the displacement of 3.7 million Palestinian refugees.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Israel and the Palestinians to compromise for the sake of reaching a peace agreement.
Delegates, who have been holed up at Camp David since July 11, are seeking a comprehensive agreement to cover the future state of Palestine, its borders, Jerusalem -- THURMONT, Maryland (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)