QUEENSTOWN -- With a dramatic intervention by Jordan's King Hussein, who is battling cancer, Israeli and Palestinian leaders edged closer to an accord yesterday that would combine a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an intensified Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.
Although "significant gaps" remained after six days of talks, according to U.S. mediators, the two sides got down to serious bargaining in hopes of attaining a breakthrough to a comprehensive agreement.
Signs of progress emerged a day after a terrorist grenade attack in Israel threw the talks into a crisis, prompting President Clinton to cancel a political fund-raising trip to California and ask Hussein to bring his experience and powerful personal touch to get the Israelis and Palestinians to confront politically tough decisions.
The aim of the summit at the secluded Wye Plantation is to end an 18-month impasse in negotiations and reach agreement on an interim Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.
"Clearly, we're into a phase of very hard bargaining," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. "A lot of underbrush has been cleared away."
However, he cautioned that "significant gaps" remained. "It's anybody's guess what the results will be at this point," Rubin said.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had seen negotiators reach the same phase of serious bargaining before and still not reach agreement. "It's better than before, but by no means enough to close," he said.
The deal under discussion would involve a phased Israeli troop withdrawal accompanied by increased Palestinian security measures aimed at reassuring Israel.
An agreement would allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally to launch so-called final-status negotiations on the most serious issues standing in the way of a comprehensive peace. Under past accords, discussions on those issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state, should have been well under way to meet a May 1999 deadline.
By nightfall, several major stumbling blocks remained, according to an Israeli source, including an Israeli demand that the Palestinians take additional steps to revoke a charter calling for the destruction of Israel and their insistence that the Palestinians turn over terrorists.
"These are very big issues that are still unresolved," the source said.
At the same time, no formula had been reached to satisfy a key Palestinian demand for an Israeli commitment to withdraw from more than the 13 percent of the West Bank that is now at issue.
But the fact that Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon held negotiating sessions with two top Palestinians, Abu Alah and Abu Mazen, was taken by the Palestinians as an indication that Israelis were intent on moving beyond details to achieve a comprehensive interim agreement.
After meeting separately with Netanyahu and Arafat, Clinton was expected to bring the two leaders together, as he had the night before.
King Hussein, who has undergone four out of six rounds of chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer, maintained a hectic pace, arriving at Wye Plantation shortly after noon and holding a series of meetings into the evening. He was expected to remain overnight, while Clinton returned to the White House, winding up his fifth full day here.
"We hope that King Hussein can help both leaders understand the needs and limitations and requirements of the other," Rubin said. "We're, I think, past the atmospherics and down to hard bargaining."
Hussein alternated with Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in tag-team meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Hussein, who has experienced war and signed a formal peace with the Jewish state in 1994, "brings adult supervision" to the process, plus "a reminder that this is a deal with regional implications," said Robert Satloff, director of the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
Hussein has said that the current Middle East leadership needs to show the courage to make a lasting peace for the sake of future generations.
King Hussein, 62, arrived in the Washington area Monday, after treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He had been waiting at his house in Potomac for a request from U.S. mediators, which was formally relayed to him yesterday by Albright.
The senior American official said it was hoped that Hussein would bring both his sense of history and personal magnetism."
Jordan has a substantial stake in the talks. If the summit ends without substantial progress, more violence could erupt. Palestinians make up the majority in Jordan, which is sandwiched between Israel and Iraq, and the kingdom has double-digit unemployment.
Sharon, the Israeli foreign minister, had said he would refuse to shake Arafat's hand and, as of yesterday, had avoided it. When Netanyahu introduced them before dinner Monday night, they stood far enough away that a handshake would not be required and merely acknowledged each other.
Clinton, who missed his goal of reaching an agreement by Sunday, set a tentative new one yesterday by rescheduling his California trip for Saturday.
There were indications that none of the parties wanted to spend another weekend at their secluded retreat, where they had arrived Thursday. The long impasse that preceded the Wye talks has led to disillusionment among Israelis and Palestinians with the peace process launched at Oslo, Norway.
The Oslo process set in motion a five-year timetable for developing a permanent peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The issues being negotiated at Wye should have been settled some time ago, according to the timetable. By now, the two sides should have been deeply engaged in the final-status talks dealing with the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood, borders, settlements and refugees.
The five-year timetable expires May 4. At that point, Arafat has threatened to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally, an action Israel has said would shatter the peace process.
Pub Date: 10/21/98