Mideast Talks Enter Critical Endgame Under Cloud of Contradictions
Non-stop negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were in their scheduled final day Tuesday in an all-out effort to overcome final obstacles to a peace agreement before US President Bill Clinton leaves for Japan.
As the pace of Camp David talks accelerated and a strict news blackout remained in force, both delegations continued to provide contradictory reports.
In Gaza, a Palestinian official told AFP that President Yasser Arafat was thinking of pulling out as the talks had reached a dead end.
"The summit is at an impasse and the Palestinian delegation is getting ready to leave," said the official on condition of anonymity.
An Arab Israeli member of parliament, Azmi Bishara, added: "I have learned from Arafat's office that he is getting ready to leave after the failure of the negotiations which stumbled on the question of Jerusalem."
Bishara said the Palestinians rejected Israel's proposal for "Palestinian autonomy over the Arab areas of east Jerusalem."
At the same time, an Israeli source dismissed the report claiming "much progress" has been made although Jerusalem had now become a crunch issue.
"Much progress has been made on many issues and now the question is whether they will resolve the intractable question of Jerusalem," said the source, in touch with the negotiators said.
"This is a critical stage and it will go down to the wire on this issue."
And a western diplomat, also in contact with Camp David, added: "Progress is being made on some issues and the Americans are still aiming to broker a framework agreement on the core issues."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart discouraged reporters from relying on sources outside the talks, saying their reliability was highly suspect.
He said Clinton had been up until five a.m. (0900 GMT) Tuesday morning holding two separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak while Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Sandy Berger met Arafat.
"The significance of that ... these issues are as difficult as any he's ever confronted in a negotiation," Lockhart told reporters at the summit press center near the presidential retreat.
"Both sides have clear views of what's in their interests, and it is very, very difficult to try to bridge the gaps," he said.
However, Lockhart did announce two moves that indicated the talks would continue their intense pace early into Wednesday just hours ahead of Clinton's scheduled departure for Japan -- a deadline Washington has taken great pains to impress on the Israelis and Palestinians.
The spokesman said Albright had cancelled a planned speech in London on Wednesday and that the White House postponed the departure of a press plane for Clinton's Japan trip from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning.
US officials say Clinton could delay his departure by up to one day, but the trip to Tokyo and Okinawa is still on.
In addition to attending the summit of industrialized nations in Japan, Clinton has planned bilateral meetings with his Russian counterpart as well as the British and Japanese prime ministers on the margins.
Officials from both sides did agree that Jerusalem was the main stumbling block.
An Israeli official said Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians both want as their capital, had become the "make or break point" of the talks, which began on July 11.
Israel has proposed to expand the city's boundaries and annex Jewish neighborhoods around the current municipal limits in exchange for giving Palestinians "a high degree of autonomy" in some areas, another Israeli official.
In exchange, Israel is offering limited Palestinian control, but not sovereignty, over several quarters, including part of the Mount of Olives.
Palestinian officials say Arafat cannot return home without a sizable chunk of Jerusalem in his luggage to proclaim as a capital.
Clinton had reported "some progress" Sunday in a New York Daily News interview.
And the White House stuck to that view late Monday. "The assessment made by the president yesterday is still valid," a spokesman said -- THURMONT, Maryland (AFP).
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)