THURMONT - Work and stress levels rose yesterday at Camp David as negotiators tried to hammer out a framework agreement for permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace before President Clinton is scheduled to leave tomorrow morning.
On the seventh day of the highly secret talks, "the pace of the discussions has intensified," said presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart. "There are a number of negotiators who have been awake for a long time over the last two or three days."
Asked whether a deal could be clinched before Clinton leaves tomorrow for Okinawa, Japan, where he is to attend a summit of the eight leading industrialized nations, Lockhart said: "I don't think we would be here if we didn't think there was some chance of trying to get this done. And as far as the schedule, it hasn't changed."
Lockhart appeared to dismiss the possibility of negotiations continuing in Clinton's absence, saying: "I expect that when the president leaves, the parties will have wrapped up their business."
By holding out Clinton's departure as a deadline, the White House is trying to force hard decisions from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Guided by Clinton, the two are working to resolve the thorny issues of Palestinian statehood, the fate of Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem and a "right of return" for 3.5 million Palestinian refugees.
Arafat has threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state if an accord is not reached by the agreed deadline of Sept. 13, and Barak has hinted that Israel would retaliate by annexing disputed portions of the West Bank.
"Time obviously is running out, but that often is a good thing rather than a bad thing," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It is those final hours that force the compromise."
However, many foreign affairs specialists believe Clinton would delay or cancel his trip to Japan if a few extra days seem necessary to reach a Middle East agreement. Barak spokesman Gadi Baltiansky said Barak would stay for two weeks, if necessary, to reach an agreement.
Another deadline - this one from the Palestinian side - also could influence the talks. The son of Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization and a key delegate at Camp David, is to be married Thursday, Palestinian officials said. Abbas, an architect of the accords reached in Oslo, Norway, in 1993, plans to attend the wedding and has invited members of the team at Camp David.
"He has to leave by Wednesday," Lockhart said, "which is the day the president will leave."
The pace quickens
The negotiators' work schedule in the past two days has demonstrated their increased diligence.
On Sunday night, for the first time, the three delegations at Camp David did not meet for an informal supper, opting instead to work among themselves. Last night, the negotiators again elected not to gather for dinner.
The negotiating teams worked into the early hours yesterday and were back at it again after a few hours of sleep, U.S. officials said.
Clinton has devoted much of his time in the past 36 hours to meetings with Barak. The two huddled until about midnight Sunday and met again yesterday morning. After consulting with the U.S. team yesterday afternoon, Clinton met with Arafat in the early evening and prepared to work well into the night.
In Israel, the speaker of the parliament, Avraham Burg, said he had spoken by phone with Barak, and that the prime minister believed that two days would be insufficient to obtain a deal.
"He is not really optimistic," Burg told Israel Radio. "We have not reached the moment of truth, the moment of decision. It is more on the pessimistic side than the optimistic."
Several lower-level Israeli officials working in nearby Emmitsburg departed for home over the weekend, but an Israeli official dismissed the significance of that move.
"We're talking about support staff, not negotiators," the official said. "I wouldn't read anything political into it at all."
Jerusalem the key
Many have suggested that a partial agreement is more likely this week than a comprehensive accord covering the four "core" issues of Jerusalem, borders, Palestinian refugees and Israeli security.
Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, is widely deemed the toughest issue. But some specialists also see a solution on Jerusalem as the glue that could hold together other components of a deal.
"Jerusalem is the keystone," said Jerome Segal, author of "Negotiating Jerusalem" and director of the Jerusalem Project at the Center for National Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
Without an agreement on the holy city, "there's no way Barak can go back to the Israeli public and say, 'We've really ended the conflict,'" Segal said. "And Arafat can't compromise on the right of return [for refugees] if he at least can't say, 'What you'll be returning to is a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.'"
Political pressures continued to well up in the Middle East, where on Sunday more than 100,000 Israelis turned out to demonstrate against Barak's presence at Camp David. Conservative Israelis contend that the prime minister is preparing to give up too much to Arafat.
Yesterday, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has conducted deadly bomb attacks in Israel, reiterated its opposition to the talks and vowed to fight on against Israel even if an agreement is reached.
"Camp David is aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause and generally we will oppose it internally by democratic means. But we will use weapons to convey our opposition to the Zionist enemy," Sheik Ahmed Yassin said.
Yesterday also produced new fallout from Clinton's decision on Sunday to break a self-imposed news blackout on the peace talks by giving a brief interview to New York's Daily News. Clinton gave the interview to deny allegations of anti-Semitism against his wife, Hillary, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New York. Clinton said there had been "some progress" and that he was "more optimistic" than at the beginning of the talks.
Yesterday, Lockhart defended Clinton's decision to speak out, saying the interview resulted from "an extraordinary circumstance." Lockhart said he was unaware of any comment by Barak on the allegations that the then-Hillary Rodham had made an anti-Semitic remark in 1974.
"Listen," Lockhart said, "the issues that they are dealing with up there are so central to their own national interests that I can't imagine either leader being distracted by anything, especially something as unimportant as the sort of new politics of the U.S."