Seven years of negotiations enter what could be the final stretch Tuesday as US President Bill Clinton meets with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts to begin cutting through the last and most stubborn obstacles to a Mideast peace agreement, according to a CNN.com report.
In their summit with Clinton at the presidential Camp David retreat outside Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat will have an opportunity to resolve long-standing conflicts over refugees, borders, settlers and the status of Jerusalem.
But the three leaders come together at a time when they are saddled with political constraints at home, said CNN.
Arafat may be losing influence among Palestinians, while Barak is losing influence among Israel's government. Clinton comes to the talks knowing that with seven months left in office, the summit may be his last chance to include a Mideast peace agreement in his presidential legacy, added the report.
"Both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the sheer guts to do what it takes to reach an agreement," Clinton said Monday.
"There is no peace without a price, just as there is no peace at any cost," Barak said Monday before departing Israel for the United States. He said the negotiations would be "heart-rending" and that "no deal is perfect."
"The reality of life is highly complicated," Barak said.
"This is a moment of truth," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat Sunday on CNN's Late Edition. "I hope that the Israeli people and Israeli policy-makers are ready for it."
Clinton has described the issues on the table as the thorniest since negotiations toward a final peace agreement began in earnest in Oslo, Norway, in 1993. Those issues have defied solution in the seven years since Israel agreed to begin turning over territory to the Palestinians, said the report.
The issues range from the question of Jerusalem, part of which the Palestinians seek for a state but which Barak insists will never be divided, to Arab refugees' claims to homes in Israel from which they say they were ousted at Israel's founding a half-century ago.
Barak has indicated a willingness to expand considerably the 40 percent of the West Bank that Israel already has agreed to surrender, even though it would involve abandoning some settlements in the territory.
But Arafat is holding out for virtually all of the West Bank and sovereignty over part of Jerusalem as the capital for a Palestinian state. He has vowed to declare statehood if Israel does not agree to a state by mid-September, the deadline the two sides have set for an agreement.
In addition to borders and Jerusalem, the fate of more than four million Palestinian refugees currently living in Jordan and other nations will be a major topic of the negotiations, as will the future of some 170,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
Barak's tenuous situation
On Monday, Barak barely survived a no-confidence motion in the 120-member Israeli Knesset. The opposition, anxious about his projected concessions to Arafat on territory and Jerusalem, out-polled the government, 54-52, but could not muster the 61 votes needed to dissolve Barak's hold on power.
"He's aiming for an agreement that will get the majority support of the Israeli people, in a sense going around the Knesset, which has become an extraordinarily complex set of warring factions," said Richard Murphy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based research group.
Clinton, possibly referring to a recent poll, said a solid majority of Israelis want Barak to pursue peace. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the prime minister can make peace despite the defection of three political parties from his government.
"He is not going to make an agreement that jeopardizes his people," Albright said.
In a poll published Sunday by the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, 52 percent of Israelis said Barak should go to the summit while 45 percent said he should stay home.
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor, said Arafat "comes as a weak leader." Polls among Palestinians show declining confidence in him, Telhami said. "People doubt his ability to deliver."
Telhami said the Palestinians have made no concessions on any of the core issues. And yet, he said, "the perception in the Arab world is that Arafat is giving away the store."
For his part, Clinton is nearing the end of an eight-year presidency in which he has dealt with conflict in the Balkans, Ireland and the Persian Gulf. The summit may be his last chance to add a Mideast peace agreement to that legacy, said the CNN – Albawaba.com
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