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Clinton Warns Clock is Ticking on Peace Process
At a "refueling stop" in Cairo on Tuesday, US President Bill Clinton played his best cards and finally may have persuaded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to press the Palestinians to compromise on Jerusalem while there is still time.
After their 90-minute meeting, Clinton and Mubarak seemed positive about the chances for finding a way around the current impasse over future control of Jerusalem, even though the gaps are still wide and certain key deadlines are fast approaching. Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has threatened to unilaterally declare statehood on September 13, the Oslo target date for an overall final-status agreement, he appears to have backed off that deadline of late due to American pressure. Thus, when Clinton warned Mubarak yesterday that the time to reach an agreement "is short," it was more a reference to the perilous political situation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Barak has lost his Knesset majority due to his unprecedented concessions last month at the Camp David summit, and has less than two months to wrap up a landmark peace deal with the Palestinians before the Israeli parliament reconvenes to consider going to early elections. In recent weeks, the Clinton Administration has lobbied hard with Arab leaders, asking them to urge Arafat to conclude an agreement now with the very generous Barak. The US argument - take advantage of this rare golden opportunity or else hasten Barak's downfall - appears to have impacted Mubarak at last.
Up until now, Egypt has been as intransigent as the Palestinians on the question of Jerusalem, demanding they be given full sovereignty in all of the eastern half of the disputed city. Mubarak has refused to pressure Arafat into making concessions and even warned that a compromise of Muslim claims to "Al Quds" could set off endless violence by extremists in the Arab/Islamic world.
Immediately after the collapse of the Camp David talks, US diplomats privately criticized Egypt for not being more constructive behind the scenes. Lately, however, the US has stroked Egypt's pride as self-proclaimed leader of the Arab world and a key mediator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. [With Mubarak just as paranoid as Arafat that his military regime will be toppled by Muslim fundamentalists if Israel is given control of any part of east Jerusalem, this hardly qualifies him as a credible middleman on the issue.] In addition, sources in Washington say the Clinton team has reminded Cairo that its annual $2 billion US grant-in-aid is not automatic, and may be at risk if Egypt continues to be uncooperative.
Following yesterday's hastily-arranged meeting, US and Egyptian officials said both countries have a fresh commitment to pull together in one last attempt to broker a settlement on Jerusalem, and thereby an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. "We're going to work together and see if we can find a way to help the parties get over this next big hump," Clinton said before their meeting.
Afterwards, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said the session was "good, positive and important," but noted that Clinton brought no new plans with him. This contrasted, however, with remarks given yesterday by US special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross, who left Cairo for Jerusalem and told Barak that Clinton had presented Mubarak with detailed ideas on solving the Jerusalem issue. Ross also cautioned negotiators that the "window of opportunity" was gradually closing.
At Clinton's request, Egypt has been trying to craft an acceptable compromise formula to the explosive Jerusalem question. A number of conflicting press reports have purported to outline the Egyptian ideas, but a Palestinian Authority source has discounted these media accounts. The Egyptians haven't made their ideas public yet, but what is known so far is that they are close to the American proposals, but with some modifications, he claimed.
In the latest alleged "leak," HA'ARETZ claims a new American/Egyptian proposal under discussion would divide the disputed Temple Mount area into four sections, each containing a different mix of powers for the two sides. The four sections would be: Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine; the Temple Mount plaza; the external wall; and the subterranean spaces. The idea of declaring "divine sovereignty" over the site may still be alive as well. But as one PA official put it: "We have discussed so many ideas and formulas for the holy shrines... there isn't much more left to talk about. What we need now is a political decision by the leaders."
For his part, Barak insists he will not even discuss any of these bridging proposals about Jerusalem until Arafat makes his stand known, which likely will not occur until he meets with Clinton next week in New York. Both Barak and Arafat will hold bilateral meetings with Clinton on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly's "Millennium" session which opens on September 6; a three-way meeting has not been ruled out. Arafat's decision on whether to be flexible or not will determine what direction Barak will take in coming weeks - more peace talks or a sharp turn towards domestic social concerns.
Arafat did not get the sort of strong backing hoped for out of the meeting of the special session of the OIC's Jerusalem Committee on Monday. The 16-nation Islamic forum issued a final statement tempered by US appeals not to tie Arafat's hands at the bargaining table - as he had sought. Following Arafat's fiery speech at the opening of the conference, in which he described the city as the "key for peace and war" in the region, the Muslim delegates reiterated Arab demands to east Jerusalem but urged the two sides to reach an agreement based on UN resolutions. Arafat was to arrive in Cairo today for his sixth meeting with Mubarak since the failed Camp David summit.
In a move to make headway, Ross is drafting a paper to summarize points of near-agreement at Camp David, according to Israel's acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. "If the Palestinians will relate properly to this catalogue [of U.S. impressions and summations], then we are in a positive game," Ben-Ami said. "If their comment will be entirely negative, it won't work."
In a sign of the frustration between the two sides, the PA is demanding an apology from Barak for his allegedly saying that the "Palestinians are like crocodiles - the more you give them, the more they want." Barak's One Israel faction shot back that the Palestinians should not "cry crocodile tears," and noted that Palestinian leaders have long cited Koranic references to Jews as the "sons of monkeys and pigs."
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.