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U.S. Shut Out of Peace Talks, But Seeks Credit as Sponsor

By Saul Friedman
Newsday

WASHINGTON

In 1978, after weeks of feverish hands-on diplomacy, President Carter concluded the Camp David accords and then, at great political and personal risk, shuttled between Cairo and Jerusalem to shore up flagging support for the agreement. And he presided triumphantly at the White House on March 26, 1979, as then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the first treaty between the Jewish state and an Arab neighbor.

In contrast, President Clinton has met only routinely with Arab and Israeli leaders. Foreign affairs has been a back-burner item in his domestic-oriented administration. And the president, cautioned by aides against become distracted from his domestic agenda, has declined suggestions from administration officials and appeals from both sides to intervene personally to break the deadlock in the 20-month peace talks in Washington.

And although the Clinton administration had declared itself a "full partner" in the talks in an effort to revive the lagging negotiations that had begun in 1991, it turned out the United States was not even a silent partner, as Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization talked in secret for seven months in a house in the woods outside Oslo, Norway.

Nevertheless, administration officials Thursday began planning a glittering White House ceremony Monday at which Clinton -- representing the United States, as a co-sponsor of the talks -- will bask in the glow and preside at the signing of a momentous agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which was concluded while the United States was kept largely in the dark.

Asked what sort of ceremony is planned, State Department Spokesman Mike McCurry said, "A nice one. A historic one." A senior administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "We've got a party to plan."

Clinton called the agreement a "huge moment in the history of the Middle East, one of major historic proportions." And he called Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from Air Force One to offer his congratulations and a promise that Washington would give its support to the agreement.

But in contrast to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, under which the United States has provided as much as $4 billion a year in economic and military aid to both countries, the Palestinian-Israeli agreement "will not cost anywhere near that," said a senior official, noting that nations in Europe, Asia and in the Persian Gulf had offered to help pay the cost of developing the Palestinian territories. And the official added that "there will be no involvement of American forces" in guaranteeing the security of the areas.

Rabin is scheduled Friday to sign his letter to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, formally extending Israeli recognition of the organization so long condemned by Israel and the United States for terrorism. Once Rabin takes his action, a U.S. official said, Clinton would take steps to resume Washington's dialogue with the PLO, suspended in 1990 after a terrorist attack in Israel.

As another senior administration official described it, the United States, which has been accustomed to playing a leading role in the Middle East, as elsewhere, has become a supporting player in the drama between Israel and the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who had made two trips to the Middle East in his efforts to breathe life into the peace talks, learned of the Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough when Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres came to his vacation home in Santa Barbara, Calif., to tell him Aug. 28, hours before the news was given to Israelis and the world.

What Peres wanted, said a senior administration official, was Christopher's help in briefing shocked Arab nations on the developments and urging their support for the Israeli-Palestinian agreement and their continued participation in the ongoing peace talks.

Clinton and Christopher sent letters to other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations, trying to encourage their financial support for the interim Palestinian government to be established in the Gaza Strip, Jericho and, eventually, much of the West Bank.

Embarrassed that Washington knew almost nothing about the Israeli-PLO talks for so long, senior State Department officials scrambled to leak stories that Christopher virtually orchestrated the secret negotiations, said one official, who added, "Obviously, we were reaching a bit."