Talks gain a new lease of life

SAN FRANCISCO, JULY 20. The Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Mr. Yasser Arafat, will stay behind in Camp David to continue the West Asia talks as the U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, left Washington for three days to attend the meeting of the Group of Eight nations in Japan.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, the White House announced that the Camp David process had come to an end without an agreement - formally signalling a failure of the talks as neither Mr. Barak not Mr. Arafat could agree on a number of crucial issues that have divided the Israelis and the Palestinians for over five decades.

``We thought it was over... and then we discovered that nobody wanted to go, that nobody wanted to give up'', remarked Mr. Clinton. Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat and their delegations will remain at Camp David and continue the discussions with the help of the U.S. Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and other senior officials of the Clinton administration.

As the process started to falter on Wednesday, the all too familiar scenario developed - the Israelis and the Palestinians blaming each other for the breakdown. Both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat are said to have written to Mr. Clinton, the contents of which have not been officially disclosed. ``...Unless there are last-minute changes, the Palestinians will have to envision the tragic consequences of an opportunity they missed'', Mr. Barak is reported to have said in his letter.

Shortly before 11 p.m. (eastern time) on Wednesday, the White House spokesman, Mr. Joe Lockhart, said, ``The summit has come to a conclusion without reaching an agreement''. The point was also made that no one saw any value in staying behind forever. The nine-day session at the Presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland saw Mr. Clinton working strenuously with both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat.

On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton apparently was more interested in seeing to it that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians moved on to rhetoric that would undermine whatever had been accomplished thus far. Mr. Clinton is reported to have shuttled back and forth between Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat on Wednesday as also called four leaders in West Asia to brief them on what was going on. The President will be making an assessment upon his return from Japan so as to decide how to chart this process further.

The near-collapse of the talks in Camp David has been chiefly attributed to persisting differences over the status of Jerusalem with both the Palestinians and the Israelis hanging tough. Mr. Arafat was reportedly willing to give up the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall in the Old City, but maintained that East Jerusalem would be the Capital of a Palestinian State. The Israelis have stubbornly refused to any divided sovereignty over this city. And Mr. Clinton is said to have proposed a joint administration for part of the city.

The status of Jerusalem has been the main stumbling block, but there are other critical issues as well that the leaders would have to sort out such as the fate of about two to four million Palestinian refugees, the size of the Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza and the question of Jewish settlements.

If the Camp David accord had indeed ended in failure and the two West Asia leaders had left for home, Mr. Barak, the argument goes, would have had more to lose politically. The Israeli leader came to Camp David politically weakened by developments at home and now he would be seen leaving the U.S. with nothing on hand. On the contrary, the impression is that Mr. Arafat would have been on stronger grounds with the perception that he had held tough during the negotiations.