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Middle East Leaders Near Agreement At Conference

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

With President Clinton pressing publicly and privately to close a deal Thursday, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were by all accounts very close to an accord near the end of the eighth day of a Middle East peace summit.

Jordan's King Hussein, who stood by at a nearby farm throughout the afternoon, was said to be awaiting final word Thursday evening to join Clinton for a four-way session aimed at consummating the agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Yet as the hours ticked by and the king's call did not come, the prospect of success remained uncertain. Summit rules dictated that nothing is settled until everything is, and sources said Netanyahu introduced a new issue Thursday that had the potential of halting the talks in their tracks: a demand that Arafat forswear declaration of an independent state when the five-year "interim period" of Palestinian autonomy expires next May 4.

Beginning after lunch, note pads in hand, Netanyahu and Arafat sat side by side on a couch and began their first intensive one-on-one bargaining of the summit, conferring in a vaulted dining room throughout the day. According to accounts from aides and confidants, the two men found compromise language on the Palestinian National Covenant, the arrest of suspects wanted by Israel and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, among other emotionally charged differences.

American mediators, by several accounts, regarded the May 4 issue as too hard to crack and proposed to handle it in a subsequent summit before that date. The threat to declare statehood, and the likelihood of recognition by most of the world, is Arafat's strongest bargaining chip as the final stage of negotiations with Israel begins. Clinton administration officials do not believe he will relinquish it until those talks are well underway, if then.

With Trade Minister Natan Sharansky here and others back home in Israel pressing him, Netanyahu insisted on placing the question in play Thursday afternoon.

"I don't think it's coincidental that it was dropped on the table now, and I don't think it's coincidental that there are so many leaks pointing to a positive conclusion," said one participant in the summit's many-sided diplomacy. "This is intended to put pressure on Arafat. He will have to say no, and he will become the culprit."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, the only authorized spokesman for any party at the summit, said Thursday evening that "critical gaps" remained and "it's anybody's guess" whether "the leaders will make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement." But he signaled substantial progress through the day and said the floating consultations "had a little bit of the flavor of a legislative session drawing toward the close."

Clinton began the day with public exhortation from the White House south grounds as he left for the summit, telling reporters that "the hardest decisions now at last are on the table."

"I hope the parties will seize this opportunity and not retreat from the clear moment to capture the momentum of peace," he said before boarding Marine One for the 70-mile flight to the Eastern Shore.

Netanyahu, for his part, continued to maneuver Thursday for options that would allow him to leave without initialing a deal.