THURMONT - The Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were suspended yesterday after a grueling second effort by negotiators failed to produce a meeting of the minds on the seemingly intractable issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the borders of a would-be Palestinian nation.
Each side blamed the other for the inconclusive results but agreed to consider reconvening the negotiations before mid-September. A senior U.S. diplomat will visit the Middle East soon to assess the chances for new discussions, U.S. officials said.
"The two parties must go home and reflect, both on what happened at Camp David and what did not happen," said President Clinton, who tried to broker a permanent Israeli-Palestinian accord in talks that began July 11.
"For the sake of their children, they must rededicate themselves to the path of peace and find a way to resume their negotiations in the next few weeks."
There is no guarantee of a new session. Though both sides agreed in a joint statement "to create an environment for negotiations free from pressure, intimidation or threats of violence," Barak hinted darkly at the alternatives if the peace process goes cold.
"Both of us said it is unfortunate that we could not complete it," Barak said of a farewell conversation he had with Arafat yesterday. "Both of us expressed hope that in spite of this failure, a way will be found to overcome the obstacles and go forward. And I do hope this is the case.
"But we are deployed for any other possibility."
Saeb Erekat, one of Arafat's senior aides at the talks, said he thinks Israel and the Palestinians will achieve a peace accord in the coming weeks. He declined to speculate on what might happen if negotiations fail.
The two weeks of talks were overshadowed by multiple deadlines. All of them still loom.
Arafat has promised to declare Palestinian independence after Sept. 13 if no permanent peace is in sight. That could spur new Israeli-Palestinian strife.
Clinton, after failing to broker peace between Israel and Syria this year, wants credit for a major Israeli-Palestinian accord before his term expires in January.
Barak's political support is crumbling at home, and it's unclear whether he will be able to remain in office to complete negotiations.
At a news conference in a Frederick hotel a few miles from Camp David, Barak said, "We were ready to end the conflict ... but unfortunately, Arafat somehow hesitated to take the historic decisions that were needed in order to put an end of it."
Arafat made no public statement. Erekat declined to point fingers, saying, "I don't think anyone can go into the game of assigning blame. No one had expected to conclude a comprehensive deal in two weeks."
Israel called 'instransigent'
Hassan Abdel Rahman, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington office, blamed Barak for inflexibility, saying, "On all three major issues the Israeli position was intransigent."
The summit's end came as a surprise to many outside Camp David who had assumed that the nearly nonstop meetings that began Sunday night with Clinton's reappearance signaled a sprint to the finish. Clinton returned Sunday from a trip to Japan, having narrowly averted a breakdown in the talks three days earlier.
Diplomatic officials had disclosed that the Sunday and Monday sessions involved the details of refugees, Palestinian borders and Jerusalem, leading many to conclude that the major differences on those issues had been resolved.
They hadn't. Instead, U.S. officials said yesterday, Clinton was focusing negotiators' attention on the fine print in hopes of clarifying the big picture.
"Through the night we tried a number of different ideas," said a senior U.S. official. "By about 1 in the morning, we saw that some of these ideas weren't working and weren't going to work. By 5 o'clock in the morning, we knew what we were going to do today," announce the talks' suspension.
All three delegations agreed that the gaps were widest on Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.
But no issue was fully resolved.
"I can't say that in any of them we are concluded," Barak said. "There are still wide gaps of a kind of conceptual nature, not just technical nature."
The Israelis and Palestinians were working on a joint document laying out their positions, but a U.S. official said, "I wouldn't exaggerate how far they got on it."
A last-minute U.S. attempt to craft a partial agreement, leaving out Jerusalem, was rejected.
Barak had offered to expand Jerusalem's boundaries to include several Jewish settlements on the West Bank while giving the Palestinians control over some Arab sections. Arafat demanded full Palestinian sovereignty throughout East Jerusalem.
The two sides generally agreed on "how people would live" in Jerusalem after a peace accord, Clinton said. The big problems, he said, were symbolic, relating to the city's role as "the core identity of both the Palestinians and the Israelis."
'Right of return' rejected
Barak offered to show Israeli "empathy" and financial support for the millions of Palestinian Arabs who were displaced upon Israel's creation in 1948 and for their descendants. But he refused to recognize Arafat's demand that Israel recognize, at least in principle, the "right of return" for refugees.
Even on the borders of a potential Palestinian nation, Rahman said, there was no accord.
"Barak insisted on making gains out of occupation," he said, referring to Israel's occupying of East Jerusalem and the West Bank territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"In Jerusalem, Israel wanted total sovereignty over Jerusalem. In the territories Israel was not willing to withdraw from territories it acquired by military means."
Barak had offered to give more than 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, with additional land surrendered near Gaza to make up for the other 10 percent.
All three delegations tried to put the best face on the outcome. Even by discussing the volatile issues of Jerusalem and refugees, U.S. officials said, the two sides reached new understandings and paved the way for possible progress.
"Both sides engaged in comprehensive discussions that were really unprecedented because they dealt with the most sensitive issues dividing them, profound and complex questions that long had been considered off limits," Clinton said during a news conference at the White House. "While we did not get an agreement here, significant progress was made on the core issues."
A senior U.S. official said there were "qualitative differences" between the Camp David sessions and previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Both sides moved on all the issues," the official said. "These were absolutely unprecedented discussions. I've never been a part of anything like it."
The Palestinians' Erekat went furthest, saying, 'The prospects for achieving an agreement after the Camp David summit is much more viable than any time in the last eight years. One day you will write the foundations of peace ... were laid at the Camp David summit."
Clinton gave Barak credit for showing the most flexibility.
"The Palestinian teams worked hard on a lot of these areas," the president said. "But I think it is fair to say that, at this moment in time, maybe because they had been preparing for it longer, maybe because they had thought it through more, that the prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat, particularly surrounding the questions of Jerusalem."
Barak gave mixed signals on the idea that the parties could take up where they left off if they convene again. He agreed that progress had been made but said that all ideas raised at Camp David are "null and void."
He suggested that Israel will suspend or cancel an approaching turnover of land to Palestinian control that is required under the interim 1998 Wye River agreement. In light of the breakdown of talks, Barak questioned "whether it really makes sense to continue to give small pieces of ground."