WASHINGTON - With less than three weeks to go in his presidency, President Clinton met late last night with Yasser Arafat to try to deal with the Palestinian leader's objections to the latest U.S. Middle East peace proposals.
In what many believe is the final realistic chance for years for a Palestinian-Israeli peace, Clinton talked with Arafat at the White House for more than two hours yesterday afternoon before they took a break and reconvened last night.
Arafat agreed to try to stop violence between Palestinians and Israelis, but no peace breakthrough was reached, the White House said. Spokesman Jake Siewert said Arafat specifically agreed to intensify attempts to reduce violence, arrest those responsible and resume security cooperation "to combat terrorism."
Arafat arrived early yesterday for the hastily organized summit, which came in the wake of new Middle East violence.
In the afternoon, the leaders discussed the need to end the bloodshed as well as details of Clinton's newest ideas on settling the questions of a potential Palestinian state, the political future of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and Israeli security concerns. Arafat left without comment.
"It was a serious discussion," said White House spokesman P. J. Crowley. "They did talk about the parameters that the president put forward. ... They also talked about the questions that the chairman [Arafat] and the Palestinians had about the parameters."
Clinton is making a last-ditch effort to resolve a problem that has taken huge amounts of his time and energy. If he cannot craft a Middle East agreement, many say, the chances of brokering an accord under the incoming administration are likely to be even lower.
"I'm appreciative of the fact that [Clinton] is working endlessly to try to bring the parties together to achieve a lasting peace," said President-elect George W. Bush. "He's a man, obviously, who's going to work up to the last minute of the last day of his administration."
Another looming deadline is the election for Israeli prime minister Feb. 6. The dovish Ehud Barak, the present premier, trails hard-line opponent Ariel Sharon in polls and has little more time than Clinton to try to resuscitate his career with a diplomatic coup.
To many, the odds for peace, never very favorable, have plunged drastically in the past three months as a result of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. More than 350 people - mostly Palestinians - have been killed.
But Clinton has kept up the pressure on Arafat and Barak, and some analysts say there is still a small chance for a deal.
"There are two ways to read the Palestinian position," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "One way is that they have given up and don't think the current environment would allow them to reach an agreement that meets the minimum. The other way is [that] they genuinely want to deal now, but the proposal that Clinton has presented has so much ambiguity that it scares them.
"I am inclined to buy the second argument."
But many in Israel say that after more than six months of on-again, off-again talks in which Barak has offered Arafat a Palestinian state with a capital in or near Jerusalem, that Arafat doesn't really want peace and won't say yes to any offer.
"Most of the people on the Israeli side are not upbeat," said an Israeli diplomat in Washington. "The feeling is that Arafat is not picking up the diplomatic ball - that these constant requests for clarification are a way to push time, when everybody knows that time is of the essence. ... The question is, if not now, when? I mean, what do they want?"
By the same token, Palestinians question the sincerity of Israeli promises and worry that an agreement in principle to Clinton's proposals would bog down into further wrangling over the details.
"What they are deeply concerned about is not to fall into the same kind of open-ended negotiating process that they've been in for the last six years," when the Oslo process was supposed to produce a permanent peace by 1999, said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and a consultant to the Palestinians. "The Palestinians have found that, through six years of negotiations with the Israelis, if they don't get the details right, they don't end up with much."
Even in the event of sudden harmony between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it is not clear whether their peoples would accept the accord.
"The populations feel so deeply betrayed by each other and are so deeply distrustful of each other that many people on both sides cannot see making concessions right now," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
Details of the latest American ideas haven't been officially disclosed but have been widely leaked in Israeli news media and are addressed in detail in a Palestinian document distributed to diplomats ahead of Arafat's trip.
Clinton's proposal, which Barak has agreed to as a basis for further negotiations, would give all or most Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, as well as sovereignty over Jerusalem holy ground known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
It would give Palestinians roughly 95 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, and provide financial compensation for the more than 3 million refugees.
Arafat has objected that the West Bank land and Jerusalem neighborhoods offered by Barak would produce noncontiguous territories that would be at a political and economic disadvantage. He also refuses to concede the right of return for refugees.
Violence in the region continued yesterday. Israel said tanks returned fire at Palestinian positions near Ramallah in the West Bank and that soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinian officials said Israelis killed a Palestinian farmer in Gaza.
"We need to concentrate on reducing the terror," Barak said. "There is no real way to carry out contacts and negotiations with the Palestinians under these conditions."