Prague, 26 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The failure yesterday of two weeks of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders near Washington has triggered a flood of commentary in the press. Some analysts see the breakdown in the talks over a final settlement between the two sides -- held at Camp David, the U.S. presidential vacation retreat -- as a defeat for President Bill Clinton himself, who pushed hard for an agreement. Others are more sanguine, suggesting the end of the talks nonetheless represents a step forward in the Middle East peace process.
The Washington Post runs an editorial in which it tries to explain why the talks concluded without an agreement: "The perhaps presumptuous premise of the Camp David summit that collapsed yesterday was that, that the parties were ready to make the historic concessions that would enable a so-called 'final status' agreement to end a century-old conflict.
The editorial goes on: "The summit, insofar as it got the parties discussing the core issues that animate the conflict and finding progress possible in important areas, was undoubtedly productive. But the premise was only half right -- so at least it currently seems. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to the talks -- at tangible risk to his political survival -- ready to make serious compromises. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also came to the summit ready for Mr. Barak to make compromises. Alas, on the most important questions, he came unwilling to make them himself."
"To appreciate the magnitude of this tragedy," the paper says, "one has to first appreciate the scope of the proposed Israeli compromise on Jerusalem -- the issue over which the talks foundered. Mr. Barak was actually willing to give a Palestinian state sovereignty over certain Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. But Mr. Arafat rejected this, and he also rejected a proposal by President Clinton to bridge the gap over the city. Palestinians demand nothing less than full sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and this is a demand that no Israeli government could grant."
New York Times:
The New York Times finds that "the collapse of the Camp David talks is a wrenching setback for Israel, the Palestinians and the cause of Mideast peace. Barak and Palestinian leader came remarkably close to agreement on some of the most difficult issues of the 52-year-old conflict." But, the paper adds, they stumbled at the most sensitive point: East Jerusalem. On that subject Barak found Arafat unprepared to make the kind of hard compromises needed to seal an agreement.
The New York Times' editorial adds: "Barak and Arafat deserve credit for coming to Camp David and, for the first time, seriously discussing issues like borders, refugees and Jerusalem. So does President Clinton, who made extraordinary efforts to keep the two sides engaged. Arranging the marathon meeting was a risk, but it was a chance that had to be taken."
The paper concludes: "Realistically, neither Barak nor Arafat has much chance of winning public support for painful compromises unless they are part of a deal that delivers a final peace. Yet the new understandings reached need not evaporate. They may be revived if discussions on a comprehensive agreement resume."
Also in the U.S., the Boston Globe calls the Camp David failure a "lost chance for peace" in the Middle Eat. The paper's editorial says: "It is the nature of statecraft and of the Mideast that today's missed opportunity may presage tomorrow's calamity. There is a danger," the editorial says, "that something worse than frustration will result from the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to strike a historic compromise. Both sides will now be tempted to regress toward familiar poses of pure intransigence."
The editorial argues further: "One ominous possibility is that, despite the areas of achievable compromise revealed in the negotiations, Arafat's inability to accept anything less than complete sovereignty over East Jerusalem reveals a chasm that cannot be bridged anytime soon." The paper concludes: "It is crucial that both leaders now keep their commitments to refrain from taking unilateral actions. If Arafat carries out his pledge to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally in the event there is no negotiated agreement by September 13, the gesture will likely cause most harm to Palestinians."
Across the Atlantic, several British newspapers also weigh in with their views of the Camp David breakdown.
"What, if anything, can be salvaged from the collapse of the summit at Camp David?" asks the daily Guardian. Under the headline "Deadlock and Danger," the paper's editorial says: "To all appearances, this failure is a disaster unmitigated by even the thinnest of face-saving formulas. After more than two weeks of extraordinary effort, during which [Barak and Arafat became virtual prisoners inside Bill Clinton's Maryland retreat, here is a bitter, bitter harvest which seems to presage a return only to extremism and violence."
The Guardian notes that "the Palestinian Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, opposed the talks from the outset and was quick to make clear his vision of the future. 'The only choice we have is resistance,'" he declared. "'Only by force are we able to retain our rights.'" Arafat, the editorial adds, "may now have difficulty restraining such hard-liners. With his leadership already weakened by a variety of factors, it is increasingly doubtful whether he can maintain his grip on an angry, dispossessed nation which had given him one last chance to talk his way to peace."
The Daily Telegraph also warns of what it calls "fears of violence after the collapse of the peace talks." But its editorial is particularly critical of Clinton's role as mediator in the Middle Eastern peace process over the past seven years. The paper writes: "Clinton's finest moment was in bringing Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat together at the White House in 1993 to sign an interim peace deal. But the groundwork for that meeting had been done by Norway, which had acted as broker for the Oslo agreement, and by the previous American administration."
The paper goes on: "Difficulties over implementation of the Wye River memorandum five years later indicated the limitations of intensive presidential mediation. A meeting between Mr. Clinton and the late President Hafaz Assad in Geneva last March proved fruitless. And a final effort to recapture the high ground by resolving the final status issues at Camp David has ended in humiliation."
In its editorial, the Financial Times is less fearful of the effects of the breakdown in the talks. It writes: "The collapse of the Middle East peace talks at Camp David is a great blow to the region. But it is important to build on the progress made during the 14 days of negotiations." It adds: "Palestinian and Israeli leaders clearly made serious efforts to reach a comprehensive peace agreement to end more than 50 years of conflict. For the first time, they focused explicitly on the issues that lie at the core of the region's tensions."
The editorial continues: "For the achievements -- however insufficient -- not to be wasted, Israeli and Palestinian leaders must quickly pursue their dialogue and not allow the disappointment of Camp David to provoke acts of violence by extremists. The two leaders' first task will be to return home and persuade their skeptical publics that progress remains possible and desirable. They will have to explain what has been achieved, where they failed and how much is at stake."
"It will be hard for both of them,." the paper argues. "Mr. Barak may have to form a new government or be forced to call new elections. That Mr. Arafat stood firm on his demand for the return of Arab East Jerusalem will improve his standing among his people. But it will not provide the hope of peace they are searching for."
A commentary in the daily Independent weighs in with a highly skeptical view of the possibility of a quick Middle Eastern peace. Robert Fisk asks: "Who on earth -- barring CNN and an increasingly desperate President Clinton -- really thought they could turn the pumpkin of the Oslo agreement into a golden carriage of peace? What folly," he then asks, "prompted Arafat to accept that agreement seven years ago -- a treaty without guarantees, which promised no statehood, no end to Jewish settlements, no return of Palestinian refugees and, most important of all, no capital in Jerusalem?"
Fisk goes on: "The carriage may have looked good on the White House lawn in 1993, with its 'historic' handshake between Arafat and Rabin, and Mr. Clinton quoting the Koran. But the carriage actually had no wheels."
He sums up: "Offered virtual sovereignty to secure virtual peace, the Palestinian leadership -- corrupt, effete and undemocratic -- preferred failure to humiliation. Now they are supposed to talk it all through again by mid-September. And Mr. Clinton says they must avoid 'unilateral action.' He meant a declaration of statehood by Mr. Arafat, something the Israelis have threatened to oppose with annexation. Have no doubt, it may be all Mr. Arafat has left to offer Palestinians. Virtual statehood, that is."
On the continent, the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung carries a commentary by Peter Muench that says the "failure of the Camp David summit is bound to inflame the Middle East conflict." He writes: "In the end it was all in vain. A fortnight of horse-trading over peace, long nights of tussling between Americans, Israelis and Palestinians over formulae and compromises, hard threats and billions of dollars in enticements failed to produce any kind of settlement in the Middle East conflict, something that seemed at times so tantalizingly near at hand."
Muench continues: "The retreat is humiliating for all three parties involved. Yet for the time being, only one party will have to face up to the failure. For all their might, the Americans have been shown to clutch at straws and Bill Clinton has failed to live up to model negotiator Jimmy Carter who successfully brokered a peace deal between Israel and Egypt during his presidency in the 1970s."
Clinton, the commentator says, "is now faced with embarrassing questions. Did his ambition to go down in history as the master peacemaker at the close of his term cloud his vision of the political realities? Did Washington underestimate the age-old gulf and deep mistrust separating Israelis and Palestinians, and thus overestimate its own powers as a bridge-builder? And finally, did the summit meeting provoke expectations that could never be matched. In other words, did it occur too early and at the wrong, myth-filled location?"
Tribune de Geneve:
A signed editorial by Antoine Maurice in the Swiss daily Tribune de Geneve calls the Camp David failure "bitter and dangerous for the Middle East." He writes: "The method of confining government leaders at Camp David under U.S, tutelage has been called into question." He goes on: "Whoever has come in contact with such U.S. pedagogy knows that it is generous and optimistic. -- but not very sensitive to differences in cultures."
Maurice adds: "Today's U.S. dominance in economic vitality, management, and technical advances is closer to the Israeli mentality than that of the Arab and Muslim Palestinians. So there was a lack of symmetry at Camp David from the outset." In addition, he notes, "both Barak and Arafat were portrayed by their domestic adversaries as weak leaders. From that moment on, it was not a matter of knowing how to succeed, but how to get out of the talks with the least possible damage."
Denmark's Information daily says in its editorial: "U.S. President Clinton expressed his regret that despite the 'great progress' made at Camp David, the Israelis and the Palestinians failed to reach a mutually acceptable solution on the status of Jerusalem. But," the paper adds, "the international community might have wished that Palestinian leader Arafat had made greater concessions on his people's request to have East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine."
"However," the paper says, "that Arafat did not do just that is understandable. Without East Jerusalem, a future Palestinian state would consist of scattered villages and towns such as Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah and Gaza. Significantly," it adds, "Israel's agreement to provide for the establishment of sovereign Palestinian state made it dependent on not allowing the millions of Palestinian refugees that were driven out following the establishment of Israel in 1948 to return to the Jewish state."
In that respect, Information says, "it might be recalled that following World War II the international community sanctioned Israel's establishment with a similar precondition: that the Israelis give up their requests for compensation after the Nazi Holocaust. Seen from this standpoint, it is surprising that the anti-Arafat protests yesterday were not much more violent than they actually were."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)