NEW YORK - The Middle East conflict, which has preoccupied the United Nations for more than 50 years and the Clinton presidency for eight, dominated the agendas of both again yesterday as President Clinton pleaded with U.N. members to help nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward a final peace accord.
"To those who have supported the right of Israel to live in security and peace, to those who have championed the Palestinian cause these many years, let me say to all of you: They need your support now more than ever to take the hard risks for peace," Clinton told the U.N. Millennium Summit, billed as the largest-ever assembly of world leaders.
"They have the chance to do it," Clinton said, "but like all life's chances, it is fleeting and about to pass. There is not a moment to lose."
Clinton's speech, a farewell address from a president who has addressed the United Nations each year since 1993, added to the end-of-an-era feeling that came as some 160 kings, presidents, prime ministers, princes and generals gathered to mark the millennial milestone.
While dozens of diplomatic initiatives floated through East Manhattan yesterday, the Middle East question dominated, as it has so often.
The question of the moment was whether looming deadlines and fading opportunity would push Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into a historic treaty, or whether Israeli-Palestinian hostility would survive the Clinton presidency, the Millennium Summit and the millennium itself.
"When leaders do seize this chance for peace, we must help them," said Clinton, who met separately with Barak for an hour and Arafat for more than 90 minutes yesterday afternoon.
The meetings produced little apparent progress. Last night presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "We did not expect today to be a day where we have a breakthrough in the process. That is true. On the other hand, the process has not broken down. ... The parties continue to be focused on getting an agreement."
While they may have enjoyed limos, chauffeurs and intimidating security staffs, the world leaders at the United Nations networked and pow-wowed like any other set of New York conventioneers.
After staying at the United Nations to hear a speech by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Clinton spent 90 minutes meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
In their third meeting since May, the Russian and U.S. leaders discussed recent tensions in Yugoslavia, including rising disagreements between Serbia and Montenegro, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said.
They also touched on the sinking of the submarine Kursk, the U.N. embargo on Iraq and Clinton's decision last week to delay authorizing a missile defense system, Talbott said.
Clinton also said hello to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and held a brief meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong. In the meeting with Luong, he discussed the possibility of his visiting Vietnam, White House aides said. Today and Friday Clinton plans to meet one-on-one with leaders from South Korea, China and Turkey.
But he quickly turned to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which White House officials said is near the top of his list of hoped-for accomplishments before he leaves office in January.
In a five-hour stretch starting at about 3:30, Clinton was to meet separately with Barak, Arafat, King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. At 8 o'clock last night he was still meeting with the Jordanian leader.
Clinton wasn't the only one involved in the Middle East peace talks to use the U.N. pulpit yesterday to broadcast a message.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Barak looked directly at Arafat and said time would soon show "whether our counterparts are ... capable of rising to the magnitude of the hour," adding, "We are at the Rubicon and no one of us can cross it alone."
On the seemingly intractable issue of the political future of Jerusalem, Barak said, "We recognize that Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims and Christians the world over, and cherished by our Palestinian neighbors. A true peace will reflect all of these bonds."
But he warned of "a tide of bloodshed and grief" if the peace talks fail.
Arab leaders at the United Nations, including Jordan's Abdullah, backed Arafat and said that U.N. resolutions call for Israel to withdraw from 100 percent of the territory it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, including East Jerusalem. Israel disputes that interpretation, saying the resolution calls for the exchange of only some of the occupied land for peace.
In his speech to the United Nations, Arafat condemned what he called an "Israeli attempt to Judaize Jerusalem" and added, "we remain committed to our national rights over East Jerusalem, capital of our state and shelter of our sacred sites."
But by not mentioning previous demands for Palestinian sovereignty in all of East Jerusalem, Arafat hinted at a possible concession to Israelis, and he added that Palestinians would share the city with people of other religions.
Even so, U.S. officials have become increasingly pessimistic that a final Israeli-Palestinian accord can be minted before Clinton leaves office. At one point administration officials had hoped that the U.N. summit could set the stage for a brief but definitive return to Camp David by Barak, Arafat and Clinton to hammer out the final details of a deal. Now they're not so sanguine.
"I don't see that happening this week," National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
The next step in the peace process is unclear. It's possible that Clinton could meet again with Barak and Arafat in New York, but Lockhart declined to speculate on that.
"We're going to continue to work with them this week, next week and in the weeks going forward," he said.
Barring a final resolution to Israeli-Palestinian differences, Clinton would at least like to make significant progress, aides said, perhaps brokering a deal that lays out borders for a Palestinian state and settles the issue of Palestinian refugees displaced by wars in 1948 and 1967.
U.S. envoy Dennis Ross has been trying to lay ground for a breakthrough in recent weeks, but regional analysts believe that the chances for a deal will fade as U.S. elections draw near and Clinton's lame-duck status increasingly undermines his stature.
The clock is also ticking for Barak, whose governing coalition has crumbled and who many foreign affairs analysts believe must strike a peace deal before the Israeli parliament reconvenes next month.
In recent days the Israelis and Palestinians have accused the other of reneging on tentative concessions made at Camp David, another development that has set back hopes in the Clinton administration for a deal.
U.S. negotiators reportedly have offered a compromise proposal that would let Israel and the Palestinians share administrative control of Jerusalem's Old City and fudge on the question of sovereignty by declaring parts of the city God's territory, not Israel's or the Palestinians'.
Yesterday, Arafat ruled out giving ground on Palestinian claims to the Islamic holy sites of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
"I will not be flexible concerning the holy places because the holy places are not only Palestinian. It's Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Muslim holy places and everybody has to respect it," he said.
At least one critical deadline in the Middle East talks seems to have been averted, as Arafat has shown signs that he'll postpone a previously promised unilateral announcement of a Palestinian state next Wednesday.
Clinton's speech before the United Nations, which went a few minutes past the allotted five minutes, was about more than the Middle East. Calling on world leaders to "rewrite human history in the new millennium," he asked them to boost funding for education and medicine and to increase efforts against poverty and war.
"Our growing interdependence includes the opportunity to explore and reap the benefits of the far frontiers of science and the increasingly interconnected economy," he said. "It also includes shared responsibilities to free humanity from poverty, disease, environmental destruction and war."