Oslo summit sets tone for final-status talks

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OSLO — Unlike previous efforts at Middle East summitry, this week's Clinton-Barak-Arafat meeting in Oslo did not aim at achieving any dramatic breakthroughs.

Instead, the three leaders had the more modest goal of creating a positive atmosphere as Israel and the Palestinian Authority embark on their most difficult negotiations to date — the final-status talks.

Given those goals, President Clinton had little difficulty in hailing his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

"We have just completed a very good meeting. I feel we have revitalized the peace process," Clinton said after Tuesday's meeting, which took place amid commemorations in the Norwegian capital of the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He offered no details about the hourlong meeting, which was intended to lay the groundwork for the final-status talks.

Those discussions — which will tackle such seemingly intractable issues as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders — are slated to begin next week in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Barak left Oslo Tuesday evening in high spirits. The atmosphere at the summit, said a very senior official in his office, was "almost too good," considering the very tough decisions ahead.

Barak and Arafat have agreed to reach a final peace agreement by September of next year. They have also set an interim Feb. 15 deadline for achieving an outline of that pact.

"We would be pleased if we could in fact reach such an agreement in this time frame, but it all depends on the progress of the negotiating teams in the coming days," Arafat said. "It depends on both sides, and they will have to come to some sort of agreements for it to work."

Clinton said Tuesday he would hold another summit with Barak and Arafat to work on the outline. There was also an agreement in principle to hold another summit in the United States in January or February if progress justifies it, Clinton said.

During the summit, Barak and Arafat agreed to meet regularly in the stretch run to the February deadline and to have their negotiators meet as often as three times a week.

They also vowed to avoid inflammatory speeches during the talks, according to Clinton.

"The sides have agreed to work very hard to avoid public comments or actions which will cause enormous difficulties for the other side in the coming days, when they are trying to come to a framework agreement," Clinton said after the summit.

There was no discussion of any heavy issues, such as the settlements, at the summit, said a senior Israeli government official.

However, Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rudeineh said that the Palestinians demanded that all unilateral acts be stopped, meaning Israel will halt all new settlement building while the Palestinian Authority will abstain from declaring a state unilaterally.

The senior Israeli official said the government believes the reports on the number of building permits given out has been exaggerated. According to the official, there have been 1,778 permits granted, not close to the 3,000 Palestinians claim.

In addition, he said that many of the permits will never be translated into actual homes, as Israel will soon be involved in the debate on final borders which will settle the fate of the settlements.

The summit in Oslo — where secret Israeli-Palestinian talks led to a historic breakthrough in 1993 — proved to be a high-stakes diplomatic poker game for each of the three principal leaders.

They knew that if they were unable to create the appropriate mood music in Norway's placid setting, the task of negotiating the really tough issues back home in the pressure cooker of Mideast politics would be far more difficult.

No one was underestimating the enormity of the task ahead, the consequences of failure — or the very real benefits that success will bring.

For the Israelis, a final settlement with the Palestinians will still leave unfinished business in Syria and Lebanon, but it will remove the major obstacle to normalizing relations with much of the Arab world. It would also secure the legitimacy that has eluded Israel in the region.

For the Palestinians, a deal would mean not just a homeland but, for the first time in history, the very real likelihood of an independent Palestinian state, with the promise of international diplomatic recognition and aid for reconstruction and development.

For Clinton, it is his last best chance to bolster his presidency and associate his name in history with the achievement of a lasting peace in the Middle East.

As part of the U.S. effort, Clinton plans to dispatch Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to the region to help bridge any differences holding up a deal.

A hint of Clinton's eagerness could be detected at the Oslo town hall before the summit, when he joined other speakers in paying tribute to Rabin's legacy.

Both Barak and Arafat joined in the drama played out before a cast of dignitaries that included Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Rabin's widow, Leah, as well as representatives from the European Union and senior officials from several Arab states, including Jordan and Morocco.

"We will strive to ensure Israel's security interests and vital needs; but, at the same time, we will seek to achieve a fair settlement which reflects the needs and sensitivities of our neighbors," Barak said.

Arafat saluted Rabin's portrait, but struck a harsher, perhaps more realistic, note when he focused on issues that will dominate the final-status negotiations.

He called on Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders and declared that peace meant resisting "violence, terror, occupation, exile and settlements."

In Gaza, Palestinian officials later defended Arafat's decision to make his demands clear at the Rabin memorial ceremony.

"We are more than a year behind an agreement which should have already been completed," Palestinian official Hisham Abdel Razek told Israel Television. "Yasser Arafat must use every forum to present the needs of the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Shimon Peres, speaking unofficially to Israel Radio from Oslo, came out in favor of a Palestinian state, adding that Israel needs a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

Earlier in the day in Oslo, at a formal royal banquet hosted by Norway's King Harald V in Rabin's memory, Leah Rabin received a standing ovation from the 220 guests when she urged Clinton, Barak and Arafat to fulfill the dream of peace for which her husband had given his life.

"It's up to you now," she said. "Is that too much too ask?"

What is at stake in the final-status negotiations are core issues that go to the heart of a seemingly intractable dispute.

In the coming 10 months, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators face those issues, they will know that the destinies of their peoples will be riding on the outcome of their deliberations.

They will know, too, that this is a rare opportunity to strike a deal — if, indeed, a deal is politically possible for the two sides.

History will weigh heavy on their shoulders.