A high-stakes Middle East peace summit got underway in Camp David Tuesday with US President Bill Clinton urging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to compromise to end five decades of conflict and avert fears of new violence.
Clinton kicked off the summit at 12:02 p.m. (1602 GMT) by meeting with Arafat alone, then Barak before bringing the pair together at the secluded presidential retreat made famous by the 1978 Israel-Egypt peace deal, the first accord between the Jewish state and one of its Arab neighbors.
The president declined to answer any questions from a small pool of reporters and photographers allowed onto the heavily guarded compound.
"We made one agreement, not to answer any questions," Clinton said as he Arafat and Barak strolled the grounds together.
"I'm going to abide by the agreement and not answer any questions," he said as they walked about 150 yards (meters) from "Laurel House," one of the 20 rustic cabins that dot the estate that also served as the meeting place when former president Jimmy Carter hosted the late Egyptian and Israeli leaders Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.
Earlier, before leaving the White House for the talks, Clinton called for the two sides to make "principled compromise."
"The two leaders face profound and wrenching questions and there can be no success without principled compromise," the president said before boarding his helicopter.
But Clinton acknowledged "there is no guarantee of success but not to try is to guarantee failure."
He dismissed concerns about Barak's narrow escape from a no-confidence vote and the flight of right-leaning parties from his coalition government.
"The polls show in Israel that well over half the people support him," Clinton said, adding that Barak has promised to put any peace deal to a vote.
"The people will be the ultimate deciders on the question," he said.
Lockhart said the president would go all-out for success.
"The president is determined to do what he can and what the United States can to bring these parties together," he said.
Failure could prove a disaster, as Arafat has vowed to declare a Palestinian state by September 13th with or without a deal with Israel, raising alarms the region will be plunged into war.
At stake in the talks are the four key issues on which the parties remain widely divided even after seven years of previous negotiations beginning with the Oslo accords which got the peace process underway.
Those include the future of Jerusalem -- claimed by both sides as their capital -- the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of millions of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlers and security guarantees for the Israelis.
Barak has established so-called "red lines," or points on which he will not compromise:
-- Israel will not give back all land it won in the 1967 war.
-- Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty.
-- No army other than Israel's will be allowed west of the Jordan River.
-- Most Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories will remain under Israeli sovereignty.
-- Israel will not recognize moral or legal responsibility for Palestinian refugees.
At the same time, Arafat has set down equally firm demands that include a return to the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine and the return of all refugees.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told reporters in Washington that her side's positions were clear and accused the Israelis of not negotiating in good faith.
The "extremist and hard-line and unilateral positions adopted by Israel are in many ways closing doors instead of opening doors," she said, adding that Arafat would not accept any deal that would result in a weak Palestinian state.
"If you negate the possibility of a viable state, if the Israeli perception of the state is a mini-state, internally fragmented, surrounded by Israel externally, with no sovereignty and no sovereignty over Jerusalem, without solving the refugee question, this will not be an historical reconciliation," she said -- CAMP DAVID, Maryland (AFP)
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