By Munir K. Nasser
Stressing his high-risk diplomacy in convening a Middle East summit at Camp David next week, President Clinton acknowledged the fears and emotions of both sides by saying "there are no easy answers and certainly no painless ones and therefore there is clearly no guarantee of success."
In an effort to explain the sudden decision to convene the summit, the Clinton Administration said the parties of the conflict “have reached a juncture where negotiators have hit a wall.”
According to a senior administration official, Clinton was forced to act now “to change the dynamic in a way that gives us a chance to produce an agreement on the core issues, that you would have an inevitable slide into a deterioration that would at best produce turmoil, and at worse would make the situation much more difficult in which to negotiate.”
The senior official, who briefed reporters at the White House Wednesday on condition of anonymity, said the Clinton Administration has tried lots of different kinds of techniques to make the process work. “And one of the things that became very clear was it wasn't going to go further unless you brought the leaders together with the negotiators,” he said.
“They were beginning to distill more clearly the differences between them, and also trying to build some bases of convergence,” the official added. “What became pretty clear about a month ago is that the negotiators couldn't really take it farther than they could, working the way they were.”
The official noted that over the course of the last four to six weeks, the US has been wrestling with what was a process in which the parties had made some headway, but in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to get them to cross the next threshold to see if you could really forge a breakthrough on the permanent status issues.
Explaining the mechanics of how the summit is going to work, the official said a small group of negotiators will arrive on the weekend before the summit convenes next Tuesday. Once it convenes, he noted, President Clinton will be spending a lot of time up at the Camp David retreat.
“ I do believe he will spend as much time up there as he feels is necessary. And I do think, once the leaders have arrived, the President will work, from the beginning, pretty intensely with them,” he said.
The official stated that Clinton’s very active involvement helps to change the dynamic of the negotiation process. He added that Clinton can work with the leaders and the negotiators, and go back and forth to some extent between them. He stressed that Secretary of State Albright will be working at every level throughout the summit.
He said these kinds of negotiations have acquired a kind of rhythm and logic of their own. “I don't believe that all the time will be spent with the leaders,” he explained. “What's going to happen is you'll have discussions with the leaders and you'll have discussions with the key negotiators. Negotiators will be talking with each other. We will be working with both sides. We'll be in the negotiations that they have; then we'll sit separately with each of them,” he said.
He noted that there will be American ideas that will be presented at the summit. “It's pretty hard to believe that in this kind of a setting that we won't be offering some ideas, as well,” he said.
On the possibility of reaching only a partial agreement, the official said the objective on both sides is to work on all the issues. “I think it is easier to try to resolve everything than it is to resolve only part of it. I'm not sure in the end it becomes something that works for either side,” he argued. .
In response to a question whether Clinton decided to hold this summit based on some progress made by Albright in her last trip to the Middle East, or was it simply a last hope for the process, the official said Clinton came to the conclusion that the process “has been taken as far as we could take it without involving the leaders with the negotiators, and that also meant with the President.”
The official said the Clinton Administration in the last few weeks began to fear that the whole process might fall apart and lead to turmoil. “Frankly, one of the things that began to worry us, we began to see that the logic of stalemate was beginning to reflect the way the negotiators were dealing with each other,” he pointed out. “They became -- on their own, they were beginning to produce more bitterness than results. And if you began to slide from stalemate into deterioration, you move inevitably towards what might end up being a kind of competition in unilateralism by each side, which at a minimum would make it far more difficult, and a maximum could really create a lot of turmoil,” he said.
Responding to a question about the possibility of the summit not producing dramatic progress or a solution, the official said, based on all the discussions they had, they see a potential for success. “If we didn't see a potential, then we wouldn't be making this effort,” he stressed.
“I think there continues to be a very strong desire on the part of the two to find a way to an agreement. But these are excruciatingly difficult decisions to make, and I don't know anybody who rushed to make excruciatingly difficult decisions.”
On the possibility of the summit failing because of the “high wire act” by the Clinton Administration, the official acknowledged the risks involved. “Yes, there's a risk associated with this. But the President used the following words -- he said there's a risk of action and there's a risk of inaction. And this is a case where we judge the risk of action to be less than the risk of inaction,” he stressed.
The official agreed that the differences between the parties have narrowed in a substantial way that warranted a summit. “They clearly went through what I would call a distillation process between themselves that revealed much more to each other on the nature of each side's position on each issue, what was most important to them on each issue, and where there might be some room for give,” he said. “So we see a potential, but it's a very difficult one. I mean, there is no two ways about it. Partly it's very difficult because the issues, themselves, are so fundamental,” he noted.
When asked about the advantage to having a President who is at the end of his term do a negotiation like this, the official responded that Clinton’s “greatest single advantage is that you have a President who knows the issues, knows the leaders. You're dealing with personal relationships, especially in the Middle East; I think the political culture has emphasized the importance of the kind of personal connections. So there's a kind of cache in credibility that is built up, and I think it's made easier because of the longevity in office and the long association with the issues,” he explained.
On the question of the US providing assistance for security guarantees for any agreement reached at the summit, the official said in the history of this process there hasn't been an agreement that wasn't accompanied by US assistance.
“So it's very hard to believe that if, in fact, there's an agreement on something that is as fundamental as the permanent status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that the US would not, in fact, provide assistance,” he said.
On the problems facing Israeli Prime Minister Barak following the recent reshuffling of his cabinet, the official said he doesn't come to the summit with a view that he can't deliver. “His view is he won a strong mandate of the Israeli public, and they voted him in and he has an approach on peace which he feels he can present to the Israeli public if there's an agreement, and they will support him,” he explained.
As for Arab support for the summit, the official said Albright has already spoken to a number of different leaders in the region, “more to explain the logic of what we're doing and to call on them to provide support for the effort.” He added that Clinton expects “at the end of the day those in the region who are committed to peace also need to be prepared to be supportive of it, in word and in deed.”
When asked about the third stage of Israeli withdrawal, and whether it can be wrapped into the summit, he said the third phase of further redeployment is something that is required by the Interim Agreement. “It was reaffirmed in the Sharm Agreement, and it is something that is a part of the process and that the Palestinians, as part of the agreement, are entitled to. He stressed, however, that the focus at this point is clearly on reaching a permanent status agreement – Albawaba.com
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