Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has "reaffirmed his commitment" to the Middle East peace process after Israel's abrupt withdrawal from south Lebanon last week, US President Bill Clinton said Thursday after meeting Barak.
Clinton, hinting he thought the stalled peace process was headed for a faster track, said he was sending Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Middle East next week "to work on narrowing the gaps" between Israel and the Palestinians.
A senior US official said Albright would go there directly from Ukraine, the last stop on a presidential European tour, and that she would meet with both Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. He said that visit might be followed by at least one other, possibly leading up to a Camp David summit.
The official said Clinton now believed that a September 13 target date for a "final status agreement" between Israelis and Palestinians was realistic.
"I believe that he thinks it is possible to reach an agreement," said the official, briefing the press after the nearly two-hour meeting.
Barak, in remarks before his meeting with Clinton, had accused Arafat of "foot-dragging" in the peace process and said he expected stalled negotiations to be resumed "immediately."
"I would expect all the leaders in the area, and of course Chairman Arafat, to move ahead with the framework agreement," Barak said.
A senior Israeli official traveling with Barak told AFP the negotiations on the "final status issues" would resume in Israel Thursday evening.
Clinton, in brief public remarks after the meeting, said Barak had "reaffirmed his intense commitment" to reach an "historic and complete" agreement with the Palestinians.
"I know that Chairman Arafat shares this commitment and realizes the urgency of this moment," Clinton said, adding he would be meeting with Arafat in Washington "soon."
The lighting visit by Barak, who arrived in Lisbon early Thursday morning and flew back to Israel immediately after the meeting, was rescheduled at the last minute to allow the premier to be in Jerusalem for a national celebration Thursday night.
The two leaders were supposed to have met in Berlin Thursday afternoon.
Referring to Barak and Arafat, Clinton said: "Both leaders know they need to make an intense effort...if we are actually going to get a framework agreement" on Middle East peace.
"I am convinced they have the courage and ability to do this and we will do everything we can to help them pass this milestone.
"It's tough work," Clinton said. "If it was easy, somebody would have done it a long time ago."
What Clinton sees in the aftermath of this meeting, said the US official, "is a very determined effort on Prime Minister Barak's part to seize the moment and end this conflict.
"We are dealing with the most fateful issues there are between the Israelis and Palestinians ... issues of permanent status, border, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements ... These are very tough negotiations," he said.
"But there's no question, as least from what we've seen now, that there is a chance to overcome the differences."
The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon "created a new reality ... no matter how you slice it," said the official.
"For many, it shows that something like this, which many thought couldn't happen, can happen ... things can change in a very profound way on the ground."
Recalling that Israel had asked Washington for 50 million dollars in aid to shore its new border with Lebanon, the official said that had been granted last week.
Speaking after an EU-US summit in Queluz, Portugal, Clinton said Wednesday that the Israeli withdrawal had created "a whole new situation...a daring situation...a new challenge and new opportunities that change the landscape." -- LISBON (AFP)
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