Clinton Struggles to Break the Ice at Summit

  • Share
  • Read Later
You could read it on their faces: Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak didn't want to be in the same room. But international pressure and violence at home that threatens to spin out of their control forced them to fly to the Red Sea coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh Monday morning to haggle over a cease-fire. At a plenary session shortly before lunch, the Palestinian leader and Israeli prime minister sat scowling, far apart from each other, as Bill Clinton implored them to reconcile. "It's very important that we all be quite honest and blunt with each other," a somber Clinton told Barak, Arafat and the other leaders in the room. "The future of the people involved here, the future of the peace process and the stability of the region are at stake. We cannot afford to fail here." Still, some U.S. officials are pessimistic on the prospects for the talks, and have concluded that it may be time for Clinton to give up on trying to be the Middle East's preeminent peacemaker.

The president will be lucky if he can get Arafat and Barak on speaking terms. White House aides admitted that during the morning meetings the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader never spoke to each other directly when they were in the same room — a far cry from their joking together at the outset of last July's Camp David summit. Usually during summits, there's some mingling and leader-to-leader chitchat in recesses. None of that today. Each delegation made almost a studied effort to keep away from the others.

The Jolie Ville Golf Resort where the summit is being staged was filled to the brim Monday with diplomatic heavyweights. In addition to the official hosts — Clinton, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II — U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the European Union's top envoy, Javier Solana, flew in for the talks. As Arafat grows increasingly critical of what he perceives as a U.S. tilt toward Israel in the peace process and looks elsewhere for diplomatic intervention, Washington has found its position as dominant Middle East peace broker challenged by the Europeans and others.

Meetings of heads of state are usually pre-cooked so that the leaders show up for brief sessions, then sign agreements and exchange champagne toasts. Sharm el-Sheikh turned out to be one of the most free-form summits ever attended by a modern American president. Not only was there no agreement at ready to sign, even the agenda was up in the air. The White House couldn't release a schedule ahead of time on who would be talking to whom, because nobody knew. Clinton and Mubarak spent the entire morning just getting Arafat and Barak to agree on how they would conduct their bargaining sessions in the afternoon. The leaders hadn't even decided ahead of time who would eat lunch together. The only protocol everyone was forced to follow: no cell phones inside the Jolie Villa. Not for security or for fear that sensitive negotiations might leak. Mubarak, so the story goes, grew so irritated one time by the chirping of reporters' cell phones during a press conference that he ordered the pesky contraptions banished from any meeting he attended.

Clinton wasn't about to complain about the no-cell phone rule. He was grateful Mubarak had even consented to host the summit. The Egyptian president just a week ago had thrown cold water on the idea of a summit on Egyptian soil. U.S. officials believe Arafat at the time had dissuaded him. But by last Thursday, Mubarak realized that violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was becoming so dangerous that he could no longer sit on the sidelines. The Egyptian president huddled with King Abdullah and the two decided Arafat and Barak had to be brought together for a meeting.

How much attention the fighters in the streets would pay to the diplomats at Sharm el-Sheikh remains to be seen. Nobody was placing bets on the peace talks restarting. Just the opposite. A growing number of Mideast experts in the U.S. government now privately believe that Clinton should give up grand visions of being the Middle East's preeminent peacemaker. Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the State Department's top Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, are clinging desperately to the hope that a peace deal can still be achieved. But in the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, other experts have concluded that it's time for Clinton to abandon notions of a final foreign policy victory and perhaps step aside to let other intermediaries such as Annan, the E.U. or even Russian president Vladimir Putin try their hand at brokering. "There are more people now saying this is not going to work," says a U.S. government expert on the region. "We're not going to find a way out of this."