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Perseverance, a Little Humor Help Save Talks

October 24, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — There was the moment in the middle of the night when President Clinton, his patience seemingly gone, rose from his seat and threw down his papers. By an Israeli account, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Israeli leader was being "despicable."

There was the moment when the Israeli bags were packed--and displayed ostentatiously for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to see as she began a meeting with Netanyahu, who was threatening to walk out.

There was the day when the Israeli delegation insisted--after a grenade attack in Israel--that security issues, and only security issues, would be on the table.

And there was humor. Clinton told the delegates at one point as they were haggling over talks built around the concept of "territory for peace": "I've kept you so long you have a right to ask me for territory."

Through such fits and starts, overcoming the grave danger of collapse, the Middle East peace talks consumed nine days, extending well past the three days, maybe four at most, that had been set aside for them. They took up about 85 hours of Clinton's time--and nearly every last thread of patience among all the delegates ensconced at the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

And in the end, when every "i" appeared dotted and every "t" crossed--and the arrival at agreement had already been announced--the fragile pact built on wearying hours of dawn-to-dawn bargaining nearly unraveled. Netanyahu was holding out for the release of a convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Jay Pollard, once a Navy intelligence analyst, from a federal prison in North Carolina.

As pieced together by the reports of participants, the negotiations that brought Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to an agreement lurched to their successful close at a ceremony in the White House East Room through remarkable perseverance. The negotiations were fueled by fears of renewed bloodshed, held back by concerns about fallout in the volatile arena of Middle East politics and soothed by little more than the occasional cigars smoked by Clinton and Netanyahu.

And yet more talks will be required in the future, which Clinton said he had promised to convene. But, Clinton said at the White House ceremony at which Netanyahu and Arafat signed their pact, "we have all agreed to try to do it under circumstances which permit more sleep at night."

"These last several days have helped each side to get a better understanding of the other's hopes and fears, a better feel for all they have in common, including on occasion, thank the Lord, a good sense of humor," the president said.

If any turn in the negotiations brought drama, it was Netanyahu's final insistence that Pollard be freed--perhaps, officials said later, to fly to Israel with the prime minister.

By then, it was Friday morning. The sun had already come up, casting an orange glow on the waiting motorcades. The engines of Clinton's Marine One helicopter had been warmed up. Thinking that a final agreement had been reached, Arafat quit the conference room.

And then, as he had in virtually every meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu made one more pitch for Pollard's freedom.

By Israeli accounts--denied by a senior Clinton administration official--the spy's release was part of the package as of Thursday, with Clinton offering his assurance that Pollard, jailed for 13 years and serving a life sentence handed down in 1987, would be free to leave for Israel. Never the case, Clinton aides said.

Nonetheless, it would tie up the two leaders into the afternoon before Netanyahu retreated. In the end, Clinton agreed only to look into the Pollard case--nothing more, the president said later.

As recounted by one participant, a senior Clinton administration official, the mood never broke during the first three or four days of talks: cordial, but stiff, as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations listed for each other the measures they required to reach an agreement.

By Tuesday, when he rejoined the talks, Clinton began exploring the elements that would be acceptable to both sides. He sifted through the list of demands to determine the minimum acceptable requirements, covering both security concerns and economic matters.

In private meetings, he elicited from each side ideas for an accord, walking each proposal back and forth, reviewing their problems with it. In effect, the president was asking, "Why couldn't you do it this way?"

Alternately from Netanyahu and Arafat, he would get the response: "I can't do it. I've gone as far as I can go and won't do it." But their barely blossoming relationship wasn't so strained that it prohibited Arafat from dispatching flowers to the Israeli prime minister to mark Netanyahu's birthday.

At one point, Netanyahu suggested a scaled-back agreement, with the delegations returning to the bargaining table within weeks. Clinton didn't like it, and Arafat rejected it, fearing that this could lead to reopening whatever had been agreed upon in Maryland.

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