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Key Mideast Figures Return To Camp David for Summit

By John Lancaster
THE WASHINGTON POST -- THURMONT, Md.

Invoking a sense of history and hope, President Clinton Tuesday opened high-stakes talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders aimed at settling what he described as the “profound and wrenching questions” at the core of their 52-year conflict.

Clinton flew by helicopter Tuesday morning to Camp David, where he plunged into meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that are expected to consume the better part of his schedule for the next week.

“There can be no success without principled compromise,” Clinton told reporters at the White House before his departure for Camp David. “Both leaders feel the weight of history but both, I believe, recognize this is a moment in history which they can seize. We have an opportunity to bring about a just and enduring end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Clinton chose Camp David in part for its historical resonance: The picturesque presidential retreat, 70 miles north of Washington in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, was the venue for President Carter’s successful effort to forge a peace accord between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat over 12 days in September 1978.

As was the case in Carter’s time, U.S. officials hope to profit from seclusion. They have imposed a news blackout on the talks and limited the visiting delegations to 12 members each; in the same vein, administration officials noted with satisfaction that mobile phone service is highly unreliable in the hilly terrain.

For all the emphasis on secrecy, both sides are eager to avoid blame if the talks fail and, to that end, have dispatched high-profile emissaries to Washington to argue their cases on the sidelines of the summit. Even as the talks were getting underway Tuesday morning, for example, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian legislature and noted human rights activist, was accusing Barak of “extremist” negotiating positions during a Washington news conference.

The Israeli press, meanwhile, has been filled with leaks suggesting that Barak is prepared to hand over far more of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians than any of his predecessors were -- reports that encouraged three parties in his coalition government to desert him Sunday. Immediately before his departure for Washington Monday night, Barak survived a no-confidence vote in the Israeli Knesset and repeated his promise to take any peace settlement to the Israeli people in a national referendum.

The political turmoil in Israel has lent drama and urgency to talks that already had ample amounts of both. Arafat has vowed that one way or another he will declare a Palestinian state by Sept. 13, the target date set by both sides for a so-called permanent status agreement. U.S. officials fear that in the absence of a deal, such a declaration could trigger armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Clinton decided to call the summit last week after concluding that the permanent-status negotiations -- centering on Jerusalem, borders and refugees -- have reached an impasse. Before leaving for Camp David, Clinton called on each leader to complete the process that Arafat and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began when they signed the 1993 interim peace deal known as the Oslo accords.

“They have passed the point of no return,” Clinton said. “The only way forward now is forward.”

Arafat arrived at Camp David at 1 a.m. Barak showed up around 6 a.m. after delaying his departure from Tel Aviv because of the Knesset vote. Clinton’s helicopter landed at 11:25 a.m., after which he met with aides before heading into separate, private sessions with each leader on the back porch of Aspen cottage, where the president will stay during the summit. Just as they did during the original Camp David summit, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will stay in private cottages near the president’s.

Clinton then accompanied both leaders on a walk through the woods, chatting about the pleasant Camp David climate -- 8 to 10 degrees cooler than in Washington -- and the history of the retreat, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters Tuesday afternoon. The three then posed for television cameras, which caught Barak and Arafat in a brief comic moment as they playfully grappled over who would precede the other through a door.

Lockhart refused to provide even the sketchiest details of Tuesday’s meetings. Participants agreed, he said, that maintaining strict silence is “in the best interest of reaching an agreement and not wasting a lot of time discussing various newspaper accounts each day of what’s going on.”

To accommodate the crush of international media covering the talks, the White House and State Department have established a press center here in Thurmont, Maryland.