THURMONT - President Clinton said yesterday that he has been "more optimistic" in recent days that the Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David will be able to reach a historic peace agreement, but he denied that a pact was close and expressed worry about the storm of protest sure to accompany any deal.
"I'm more optimistic than I was when they got here," Clinton told New York's Daily News in a telephone interview yesterday afternoon. "We might make it. I don't know. God, it is hard. It's like nothing I've ever dealt with."
The president's comments were the first authoritative report on the Camp David talks since they began Tuesday. Until now, Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials have refused to comment on the progress of the negotiations, and no delegates have given on-the-record interviews.
"I would be totally misleading if I said I had an inkling that a deal is at hand," said Clinton, whose conversation with the Daily News was made available to reporters by the White House. "That's just not true. But we're slogging."
Asked whether negotiators will be able to finish work before he leaves for an international economic summit on Wednesday, Clinton said: "I hope so. I'm going to do my best to finish here. There's been some progress. But I can't say I know we'll succeed. They're trying. It's so hard."
Reflecting on domestic opposition to the peace process faced by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Clinton said, "What's really troubling is that they know that if they make a peace agreement, half of their constituencies will be angry at them for a while."
The president made his comment yesterday afternoon, after another day of difficult bargaining sessions at Camp David. Clinton is scheduled to leave Wednesday morning for Japan to attend the annual summit of leading industrialized nations plus Russia.
All indications yesterday pointed to a tenser atmosphere as his planned departure becomes more of a factor.
"Everyone understands the calendar. Everybody understands what the schedule is and what the issues are," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "The issues are difficult. The atmosphere can be tense. That's certainly the case in any number of discussions."
"In any negotiation, that has now entered its fifth or sixth day, as you get to the hard issues ... the atmosphere can be tense," Lockhart said.
"The situation shows that the positions remain far apart," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told reporters in Israel yesterday after receiving a phone call from Barak. "The situation is far from being easy, or pointing to a narrowing of gaps."
Also in Israel, Yosef Lapid, head of the opposition Shinui party, told Israel radio that he spoke with Barak early yesterday and that the prime minister "doesn't sound like the most optimistic person in the world."
Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Amr, who is in the Washington suburbs and is not part of the delegation at Camp David, painted a slightly brighter picture, saying that "things are moving at Camp David in a very serious manner."
Without being specific, Lockhart dismissed most of the reports and comments, saying "a majority of stories citing sources not at the talks have been wrong."
Clinton, Barak and Arafat are trying to extinguish a half-century of hostility between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs who were displaced upon Israel's creation in 1948. Isolated at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, the three men are addressing Arafat's demands for justice for the refugees and for a Palestinian nation with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Even if an agreement is reached, Barak will be facing an uphill battle to win approval. The Israeli leader, who narrowly escaped a no-confidence parliamentary vote before the summit, plans to take any accord directly to the public with a referendum.
In Tel Aviv, Israel, tens of thousands of protesters sent a strong message to Barak that broad concessions to Arafat will not be accepted.
Much of the crowd, estimated at up to 150,000, had come from the West Bank, where Israeli settlers fear they might be displaced in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Also in the crowd were members of the opposition Likud bloc and other right-wing parties.
Nearly 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved to the West Bank, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, since Israel captured the area from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.
"We are the majority, and the majority will win!" shouted many of those crowded into Rabin Square, where a Jewish extremist killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 for agreeing to trade land for an end to decades of conflict with the Palestinians.
Some wore T-shirts saying: "Jerusalem is one." Others held banners that attacked the prime minister. "The nation has decided," one said. "Barak is dangerous to Jews."
Many in the rally also held up lighted candles on menorahs.
If past peace talks are any guide, the next steps will be confrontation, ultimatum and moves to walk out of the talks by either or both Middle East delegations.
"There's a rhythm to this. They'll have to reach some kind of crisis before people start showing their cards and their bottom lines," said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and now a political consultant for the Palestinian Authority. "I'm sure they're trying to use [Clinton's] trip to Japan as a deadline, but my guess is it won't work."
At Camp David, the three principals continued to meet with each other in various combinations and with their teams. Late yesterday, Clinton held another bilateral meeting with Arafat.
Clinton dined with Barak and Arafat on Saturday night, sitting between them, and met with the U.S. negotiating team afterward.
The president has met privately at least twice with Barak and Arafat together and one-on-one with each leader several other times. As of yesterday afternoon, Barak and Arafat had met without Clinton only once. Most of the negotiators join each other for supper each evening in Camp David's Laurel Cabin.
Wire reports contributed to this article.