Palestinians Express Optimism at Progress of Talks at Camp David
By Munir K. Nasser
President Clinton began a new round of meetings on Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators after a slow Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. He stepped his efforts to speed up the talks amid Israeli reports that the summit could continue after Clinton's departure to Japan on Wednesday.
As Israeli and Palestinian sources give different, sometimes contradictory, assessments of the negotiations at the Camp David summit, some Palestinian officials were reported as expressing optimism at the progress of the talks.
Palestinians maintain that an agreement is possible, even close, while Israeli sources insist that the original differences remain. The Israelis, however, do not share that optimism with the Palestinian side as Clinton tries to forge a final peace settlement with just three days left before his scheduled departure Wednesday for an economic summit in Okinawa, Japan.
According to press reports in the US media, the mood in the Palestinian delegation was reported to have improved. Some Palestinian official close to the talks were quoted as saying, "The next 48 hours will show whether an agreement can be reached within days, or within a few weeks.”
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Clinton said that he was "more optimistic than I was when they first got here. We might make it; I don't know."
Clinton called the negotiations "the hardest thing I've ever seen," in a transcript released by the White House: "I would be totally misleading if I said I had an inkling that a deal is at hand. That's just not true. But we're slogging.”
In his briefing on Sunday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart has acknowledged only that the talks are extremely difficult, following some reports that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on Thursday night ordered his delegates to pack their bags after he was angered by an American proposal on the future of Jerusalem. Clinton was reported to have talked him out of leaving.
Responding to a press report that the price of peace could be $15 billion or more in US aid for the settlement of Palestinian refugees, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters: "I think that's way too high." He said some senators might balk at paying to resettle refugees.
Lockhart said the Clinton Administration has done extensive consultations with the leaders of Congress on the issue of a financial package to support a peace settlement. “We have kept them informed where the process is all along,” he said.
Lockhart denied speculations published in the press about the substance of negotiations on core issues. “There's a lot of people talking; a lot of them don't know what they're talking about. Only time will tell who does and who doesn't,” he said.
Lockhart said conflicting reports about the negotiations are mere speculation. “Having looked through some of the stories of the last few days, though, I can say I think without breaking the ground rules that a majority of the stories citing sources not at the talks have been wrong,” he said.
When he was asked about the possibility of the negotiation continuing under the auspices of Madeleine Albright after Clinton leaves to Japan, Lockhart said: “That is a question that would involve speculation, which I'm not going to engage in.”
Lockhart said that all sides believe that an agreement needs to be reached, and an agreement is in the interest of all sides. The negotiators are divided into different groups, each group working on a certain core issue. He refused to confirm reports that the US has already presented its bridging proposals.
Lockhart acknowledged that "the intractability and difficulty of the issues ... provides the impetus for the atmosphere to be tense at times" but he said the U.S. role is to "try to help the parties work through these things and see areas where we can find agreement."
Lockhart confirmed reports that a new person was added to the Israeli delegation, Yisrael Hassoun, Deputy Director of the General Security Services. According to Israeli press reports, Hassoun is a former Shin Bet chief, who was Oded Eran's deputy in the non-core issues talks. Eran himself threatened to leave the talks because he was not invited to Camp David, and according to Israeli sources had already purchased a plane ticket to Israel but was persuaded by Barak to stay on – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)