By Munir K. Nasser
By declaring that Israel and the Palestinians have "passed the point of no return," President Clinton kicked off the Camp David peace summit on Tuesday amid a news blackout that will prevail until the end of the high-stakes negotiations.
Before leaving the White House by helicopter to fly to Camp David, Clinton told reporters "Both leaders feel the weight of history, but both, I believe, recognize this is a moment in history which they can seize. We have an opportunity to bring about a just and enduring end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Clinton said that despite daunting obstacles to peace, the risk of not holding a summit is greater than the risk of going forward. "The two leaders face profound and wrenching questions, and there can be no success without principled compromise," Clinton said.
Clinton noted that the two leaders would seek to complete a process that began with the 1993 Oslo accords, which committed Israel and the Palestinians to settling their differences through negotiations and carrying out a series of interim trust-building measures
On arriving at the Camp David retreat in the Maryland mountains, 80 miles from Washington, President Clinton ushered Arafat and Barak into the presidential retreat where he hopes that the chemistry of the place and the moment can induce a spirit of "principled compromise" that yields a substantive peace agreement.
President Clinton, the only one of the three leaders who spoke publicly on Tuesday, talked in idealistic tones of securing a "just and enduring end" to the conflict and of the "gift of peace" that the leaders could give their children.
According to White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, the three leaders sat on the negotiating table, a rectangular one, with 21 American, Israeli and Palestinian delegates before starting the talks. The Americans imposed a news blackout in an attempt to make an airtight environment safe from the pressures of media intrusion.
Lockhart described the meeting atmosphere as “good,” and the mood as “serious." He said Barak was placed in the Dogwood Cabin, where Anwar Sadat stayed 22 years ago when the successful summit meeting between Egypt and Israel opened. Arafat was given the Birch Cabin that Prime Minister Menachem Begin occupied then, at the start of the Israeli-Arab peace summit in 1978.
American officials told reporters that Barak has indicated in his public and private statements that he must return to Israel with some kind of a deal if he hopes to hold his government together.
Clinton was scheduled to spend the first night at Camp David with the two leaders, but sources said he is unlikely to offer specific proposals for a few days, hoping instead to spend the first sessions airing out the issues. Administration officials said they expect the "crunch days" for negotiators to be next Monday and Tuesday, ahead of Clinton's scheduled departure next Wednesday for Okinawa and a meeting with leaders of the leading industrial nations.
According to Lockhart, the first plenary session between President Clinton, Barak and Arafat and their delegations lasted 30 minutes. At the beginning of the plenary session, the two sides and the United States discussed and reached an agreement that a news blackout on the substance of the discussions would be imposed "from this point forward."
Earlier in the day the President met with each leader separately on the back porch of Clinton's cabin and later in the day met with each of them again separately, Lockhart said.
"I'm sure the pictures have been transmitted around the world at this point" of the walk, he said, in which Clinton put one arm around Barak and the other around Arafat.
On that walk, Clinton declined to answer reporters' questions about the first hours of the summit. "We pledged to each other we would answer no questions and offer no comments, so I have to set a good example," he said.
Barak and Arafat were both met by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright upon arrival at Camp David, the spokesman said. President Clinton met bilaterally with each of the leaders before the plenary session opened. "I think both sides, in their discussions with the President and in the plenary session, indicated that they fully understand the difficulties that face them over the next days, but also the opportunity that's before them," he said.
Lockhart said Barak and Arafat greeted each other a few moments before in a very friendly way. “They had a very pleasant discussion as they walked through the woods down to the cabin. And those who have watched Chairman Arafat in particular will note that he always tries to allow those that he's with to enter a building before him, and that's what happened.
Lockhart said Albright participated in the meetings with the President before he went into his bilateral meetings with Barak and Arafat. During his meetings, she met with various members of each delegation in an informal way. “I think the Secretary of State will be here from now until these discussions are finished; she's committed to staying here to see that through,” he said.
Lockhart added that conversations with the American team took place at different levels, including discussions with Ambassador Ross, the National Security Advisor Berger, Secretary of State Albright, and others.
Lockhart said Clinton had a series of telephone discussions with congressional leaders about the summit. He added that Clinton talked to President Carter over the last seven or eight years both about the Camp David experience and the overall Middle East peace. “The President has been well immersed in this process now for seven and a half years. I think he's spent a lot of time getting ready on the particular issues here that are unique to these discussions. And I wouldn't rule out that at some point in time he might want to touch base not only with people who have expertise here in the United States, but leaders around the world.
Lockhart said Clinton prepared for the summit by “reading a large reading list that, based on some discussions we've had, he got all the way through. I know that there was one book in particular,
I think by Bill Quandt, about the Camp David peace process,” he said.
Lockhart said he has intention over the next few days to provide progress reports on the summit. “the delegations know each other well; they know the issues well. I think it's very clear the difficulty of these issues as they move forward. And I think the best thing to do is to allow the parties to try to work through these differences,” he said.
THE MIDDLE EAST PEACE SUMMIT AT CAMP DAVID OFFICIAL DELEGATIONS
Following is the White House list of the official delegations at the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David, Maryland:
United States Delegation
Secretary Madeleine Albright
John Podesta, Chief of Staff
Samuel Berger, Assistant to the President for National Security
Joe Lockhart, Assistant to the President and Press Secretary
Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief of Staff
Dennis Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator
Martin Indyk, US Ambassador to Israel
John Herbst, US Consul General, Jerusalem
Bruce Riedel, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director
for Near East and South Asian Affairs, NSC
Aaron Miller, Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator, Department of
Rob Malley, Special Assistant to the President for Arab-Israeli
Affairs and Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, NSC
Jonathan Schwartz, Deputy Legal Adviser, Department of State
Toni Verstandig, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Near Eastern Affairs,
Department of State
Gemal Helal, Senior Advisor, Department of State
Prime Minister Ehud Barak
Shlomo Ben Ami, Minister of Internal Security
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Minister of Transportation and Tourism
Elyakim Rubinstein, Attorney General Maj. Gen. (Ret.)
Danny Yatom, Chief of Staff
Gilad Sher, Chairman of the Negotiating Team
Shlomo Yanai, Head of Security Team
President Yasser Arafat
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Secretary General, PLO Executive Committee
Ahmed Qorei (Abu Ala), Speaker, Palestinian Legislative Council
Yasser Abed Rabbo, Minister of Information and Culture
Nabil Shaath, Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning and
Sa'eb Erekat, Palestinian Authority Minister of Local Government
Hassan Asfour, Palestinian Authority Minister of State and Head of PLO
Akram Haniya, Advisor to the Chairman
Col. Mohamed Dahlan, Chief, Preventive Security, Gaza
Mohamed Rashid, Economic Advisor
Nabil Abu Rudineh, Chief of Staff
Yousef Abdallah, Assistant to the Chairman
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )