WASHINGTON — With the most intensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in months drawing to a close today, President Clinton must decide soon if he will dispatch Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or another senior envoy to the Middle East in a bid to complete a peace agreement during his tenure.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet Clinton at the White House today before heading home from a round of talks that began Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday.
"What we do next will depend on what progress has been made," Crowley said. "Could a senior U.S. official go to the region? Sure. Could there be another round of talks here? Sure."
Albright met for two hours Friday with Israeli and Palestinian delegations for what the State Department called "very serious discussions" at a cordoned-off Air Force base in Washington.
As has become traditional for U.S.-mediated Middle East talks, there have been no authoritative reports of what is going on at the table. U.S. spokespersons refuse to discuss substance, and Israeli and Palestinian sources dribble out select information to put their own spin on the proceedings.
On Thursday, both Israeli and Palestinian officials had talked optimistically about progress. But on Friday, the Palestinians accused Israel of backtracking from compromises offered the previous day.
"They gave us positive indications on the issue of Jerusalem, but they went back on it," Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed-Rabbo told the Associated Press, referring to reported offers on sovereignty over the disputed city. "We are facing a crisis. We are not close on any of the issues."
But Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here, insisted that his government hasn't withdrawn any proposals.
"There has been no Israeli backtracking," Regev said. "If the Palestinians are assuming that there is going to be unilateral Israeli flexibility on issues that are important to them and they don't have to move on issues that are important to us, they are sadly mistaken."
As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks followed their familiar roller-coaster pattern, violence on the ground, which has raged for nearly three months in the Mideast, also held true to form Friday.
Near the settlement of Mekhola in the northern West Bank, a Palestinian man with explosives strapped to his body walked into a small restaurant and blew himself up, police said. He was killed and three Israelis were seriously wounded, including a 20-year-old female soldier who was reported near death.
Elsewhere, a Palestinian entered a settlement in the Hebron area, tried to stab a settler and was shot to death, Israeli radio reported. In addition, a 56-year-old Palestinian man working on a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip was shot and killed--by Israeli gunfire, the Palestinians say; by Palestinian gunfire, the Israelis say. Two more Palestinians were reported killed in separate clashes in the West Bank.
And on the holiest day in the Islamic month of Ramadan, thousands of Muslim worshipers were kept away from prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque inside Jerusalem's Old City. Many clashed sporadically with police throughout the afternoon. It was both the last Friday of Ramadan and the day that commemorates the prophet Muhammad's receipt of the Koran.
Although the latest round of Washington negotiations marked a resumption of the peace process that had been gutted by the Arab-Israeli violence, officials on both sides said there is no chance that agreement can be reached this week.
The Israelis and the Palestinians are represented in the Washington talks by their top-level negotiators, but U.S. officials acknowledge that final decisions can be made only by caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Moreover, after the Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit at Camp David collapsed in July, U.S. officials acknowledged that one mistake the American side made was in failing to court the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other moderate Arab states to support a compromise agreement. The Camp David talks in Maryland failed after Arafat rejected an Israeli proposal on disputed Jerusalem in the face of widespread opposition in the Arab world.
In Washington on Friday, an Israeli diplomat said the only step that holds the promise of agreement is for a senior U.S. official to visit the region to confer with Barak, Arafat and leaders of neighboring Arab governments.
"It is very important that pro-Western Arab regimes are on board," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "Without that, the process has no chance of success. If they are on board it does not mean success is automatic, but without it, there is no chance."
Speaking in the Gaza Strip, Arafat told reporters that "no final result has come" in the talks but that he hopes a deal is close.