Summit: High Hopes in US, Stockpiling Supplies in Gaza
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - President Clinton is set to open a landmark summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders Tuesday, hoping to end a century of Middle East conflict while enhancing his peace-making legacy.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his entourage arrived in Washington early Tuesday after the Israeli leader narrowly survived a no-confidence motion in the Knesset.
Although he has lost the backing of one-third of his coalition and does not have a majority of Knesset members' support for his attendance at the summit, Barak said he was confident he was "accompanied by the hopes and prayers of Israel's citizens."
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who arrived in Washington late Monday, managed to consolidate some support from smaller Palestinian factions prior to his departure.
The summit, scheduled to begin at 1:30 EST, is aimed at finding a solution to long-standing differences over Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders, and settlements - in about eight days.
Clinton, who intends to be at hand for most of the summit, must leave by July 19 for a scheduled trip to Japan. This has fueled speculation that this may only be the first in a series of summits.
Analysts have said that he needs a deal in order to crystallize his legacy as a Middle East peacemaker.
"We're going to try to agree on a resolution on the big thorny issues that the parties agreed on the White House lawn in September of 1993 they would come to terms with a good while before now," Clinton said. "It isn't easy."
Clinton joked that he had been studying the situation so much now he could "draw a map of the West Bank in my sleep."
In 1993, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Arafat signed the "Oslo Accords" at the White House, an interim agreement that was supposed to lead to a comprehensive agreement within five years. Those accords left the most divisive issues to be dealt with at the end of the interim period.
Over the next seven years Israel turned over full or limited control of most of the Gaza Strip and nearly 40 percent of the disputed West Bank to the PA, putting most Palestinian Arabs under PA rule.
The PLO established a self-rule Authority, a legislature and security forces, putting in place the foundations of a state Arafat hopes to declare later this year.
Barak set the chances of reaching an agreement at 50/50.
"I expect [Arafat] to come full of resolution and the ability to make a decision in order to achieve a settlement," he said before leaving Israel.
Barak has promised Israelis he will not agree to a return to the borders Israel was confined to before 1967; will not share sovereignty over Jerusalem; will ensure the majority of Jewish settlers in disputed areas remain under Israeli rule; and will accept no responsibility for Palestinian refugees.
Nonetheless he is aiming to return with an agreement. Barak's office has said he is already preparing to hold a national referendum on a deal.
A senior source was also quoted as saying that Barak intends to release some 30 Palestinian security prisoners during the summit in order to establish a good atmosphere at the talks.
Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Arafat was less conciliatory. He told an African summit in Togo that the peace process could still collapse and accused Israel of not fulfilling its agreements despite a "tremendous amount of flexibility" shown by Palestinians.
The Palestinians could not be expected to continue suffering amid the "state of occupation, oppression, discrimination and an overall siege imposed upon them by the occupation forces," he continued.
Arafat told a Saudi newspaper he would not back down on his plan to declare statehood by September 13, nor would he compromise on Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has warned that violence could break out if there was no agreement.
"There is a lot of pressure on the summit, but I think that it's an essential moment," she told NBC's Today show. "President Clinton believes that it's essential to do it now, because we're concerned about what happens if this descends into violence."
Back in the Middle East, Palestinian residents of the Gaza strip have begun stockpiling supplies in the event the negotiations fail and violence breaks out. Arafat's Fatah movement in Gaza declared a "state of emergency" over the weekend, and called on residents to prepare for serious trouble.
A series of clashes have occurred between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in recent months. A roadside bomb was also discovered recently along the road to a Jewish settlement there shortly before it exploded.
Near Jerusalem, Arab residents of Abu Dis - an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, slated to be handed over to full PA control - were taking the summit far less seriously.
"They're all liars," said one resident, Ibrahim. "The U.S. will only do what is good for the U.S. They already have cut a deal," he said.
A shopkeeper in the town characterized the negotiations as an "April Fool's Joke."