LESS HARMONY THAN HOPED AT OSLO SUMMIT

US President Bill Clinton concluded on Tuesday that the Middle East peace process has been “revitalized” following his two-day summit in Oslo with Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. But signs of discord surfaced amid sober admissions that achieving a framework agreement for a final settlement of this long-standing conflict by mid-February is an uphill task.

After a ceremony yesterday in Oslo’s ornate city hall marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton summoned Barak and Arafat for their only trilateral meeting to lay out the format for peace talks over the next 100 days. Clinton emerged to announce the process was back in “high gear,” but his cancellation of a planned press conference for Barak and Arafat was a signal that the atmosphere was not as well as their Norwegian hosts had desired.

Clinton said the two leaders had promised to work hard in one-on-one meetings in hopes of reaching a framework agreement, adding “we might well have a [Camp David-style] summit” just prior to the February deadline, depending on the progress made by the Israeli and Palestinian final-status negotiating teams by then.

Clinton also said he won a promise that Israelis and Palestinians will “avoid public comments or actions which will cause enormous difficulty for the other side in the next hundred days or so.”

The comment may have been in reference to remarks made by Arafat at the Rabin memorial earlier in the day which had angered Barak.

Hundreds of dignitaries attended the summit’s keystone event, a ceremony commemorating Rabin held in the same hall where he had received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, together with Arafat and Shimon Peres. Organizers hoped it would improve the mood of the negotitations just as talks on the toughest substantive issues begin - Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlements.

But after offering a military salute to a large portrait of his “partner” Rabin, Arafat proceeded to say: “In spite of our happiness with... the start of implementation of the [Sharm e-Sheik] memorandum... we feel great concern over this destructive danger posed by the Israeli policy of settlements to the peace process, which has barely started to recuperate.”

Arafat minced no words, brandishing the settlements “a threat to the whole process,” and claiming Jerusalem was “holy to the Palestinians.” He also employed a string of sensitive buzzwords with his call for resisting “violence, terror, occupation, exile and settlements.”

According to later statements out of the Prime Minister’s Office, Barak felt Arafat’s speech was “out of line” for having touched on thorny issues better left for a less-solemn occasion. Barak himself had refrained from expressing clear political positions in his speech at the ceremony and was angry at Arafat for bringing up Palestinian demands.

A senior official from Arafat’s office said the chairman had, in fact, toned down his speech, after being asked by the Americans to refrain from provocative statements.

Barak also was critical of comments by Palestinian officials, who reportedly had called him and members of his cabinet names, and was miffed that Peres had referred to Arafat as “president” and not “chairman.”

In an effort to avoid further disharmony, Clinton canceled the post-summit press conference.

In his own speech at the Rabin ceremony, Barak pledged to continue his cause: “I vow to you, Yitzhak, a soldier who fell in the battle for peace, that we... are determined to give your death a meaning by following your legacy until we achieve peace.”

Barak promised to “finish the journey” initiated by Rabin, his former commander and mentor who was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli intent on halting the Oslo peace process started by Rabin. “Time is short and the challenge is demanding,” conceded Barak, a refrain Arafat was to quickly endorse, saying “Let’s stop wasting precious time.”

Barak’s remarks also echoed Clinton’s comments on Rabin: “We can almost hear his kind but stern voice telling us: ‘Well, this is all very nice, but if you really want to honor me, finish the job.’”

It was tempting to label the Oslo gathering a success from the outset, since its goals were so modest — avoid any substance and simply try to capture the spirit of the Olso process by focusing on the loss of Rabin. Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath confirmed, “I don’t think anybody wanted to come here to negotiate substance, people came here to create the climate and the atmosphere.”

At the start on Monday, the consensus view was the atmosphere was “excellent” between the parties, as Barak seemed to have set the early tone with his positive spin, “where there is a will, there is a way.”

But by the time of the final meeting with Barak and Arafat on Tuesday evening, Clinton was seeking an agreement to tone down their public rhetoric, according to an Israeli official.

Undoubtedly, Arafat’s testy remarks reflected Palestinian frustration over the settlement’s issue. They had hoped going into Oslo that Clinton would push Israel to announce a freeze on settlement activity, at least over the next 100 days of critical talks. Arafat even presented Clinton with a map of settlements allegedly being built by Israel in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem areas.

However, Clinton refused to press Barak on the matter, and while the Israeli leader did not explicitly say he would stop settlements, he told Clinton he would not take any “provocative actions.”

An anonymous US official indicated that Clinton had simply urged the two sides to resolve the dispute over settlements as part of their framework talks. Those negotiations will begin this coming Monday in Ramallah, with the respective final-status teams headed by Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli diplomat Oded Eran. They will meet for four straight days, then report back to their leaders.

US mediator Dennis Ross and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will make frequent shuttles to the region to help the parties meet the February 13 deadline for a framework agreement.

In a final note from Oslo, there was also discord in a separate meeting Clinton held with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Clinton gave Putin stern advice about Russia’s offensive against Islamic guerrillas in the separatist region of Chechnya, while the Russian leader handed Clinton a letter from President Boris Yeltsin saying that US pursuit of missile defense systems could have “extremely dangerous” consequences for arms control.


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