THURMONT, Md. — Sending the Camp David summit into overtime, President Clinton delayed his departure for Japan by a day to give Mideast negotiators a last chance to break their deadlock. He opened the ninth day of talks Wednesday by meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
With pressure building, Israel said "it seems" that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had decided to stop the talks and return home. But the White House said it had not been informed about anyone planning to leave.
"There is a lot of stuff that flies around the air that's not worth a lot but fills some column inches and makes some people happy and bumps you up wherever you are in the news report but just has no reflection of what's going on," presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
Explaining Clinton's decision to delay his trip, Lockhart said, "It's a judgment that the president made that it was useful and in the interests of the peace process to do that, but it's not an open-ended commitment." He said the president planned to get on Air Force One sometime overnight and fly to Asia.
Clinton met with Barak around 10 p.m. Tuesday and then talked with Arafat. The president finished work about 1 a.m. and returned to work Wednesday eight hours later, meeting first with members of the U.S. negotiating team and then with Arafat.
Asked if it had been worthwhile for Clinton to remain at the talks, Lockhart said, "I think that the fact that he's sitting in at a bilateral (meeting) with Chairman Arafat as we speak indicates that we think it's worth it."
The Israeli statement, issued by telephone by the prime minister's office and attributed to senior sources, did not specify when the Israeli team planned to leave, saying only, "It seems that Barak has decided to stop the talks and return to Israel."
With Clinton's departure now scheduled for Thursday, the talks were likely to last only one more day anyway.
The Israeli statement said Palestinians "are not yet ready to accept the hard decisions that are required."
The White House had announced after midnight that Clinton was putting off his departure for a summit of industrial powers "in the best interests of the Middle East peace process." He had been scheduled to depart Wednesday morning.
"Clearly, the president is doing this so he can continue to work with the leaders through Wednesday," Crowley said then, adding that work at the secluded presidential retreat continued into the early hours, as it had in recent days.
Even before the Israeli announcement, indications were that the going was extremely difficult at Camp David.
Ofir Pines, a Labor Party lawmaker and the chairman of Barak's governing coalition, said he did not believe the two sides could reach an accord.
"The Palestinian Authority is not prepared, simply is not prepared to reach an understanding to reach a peace agreement with Israel," he said on Israel radio.
The Palestinians, too, expressed discouragement. Their unofficial spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said from Israel it would take a "miracle" to get an agreement.
At Camp David, it has become the norm to work far into the night. Late Tuesday, the president dined with members of his negotiating team on the back patio of Camp David's Laurel Cabin.
But no new meetings were reported Tuesday between Clinton and either Barak or Arafat. The leaders spent most of the day with their respective negotiating teams.
Since the summit began July 11, Clinton has been shuttling between the two sides, trying to shepherd them toward an accord on the most painful and divisive issues: the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the fate of several million Palestinian refugees and — most explosive of all — the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
If Clinton leaves Thursday morning as now scheduled, he would still arrive in time for the Friday-Sunday meeting in Japan's southernmost province, Okinawa, skipping preliminary talks in Tokyo. The White House statement expressed "regrets" over the delay.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's spokesman Kazuhiko Koshikawa said, "We understand the circumstances."
A peace agreement struck at Camp David would likely provide Arafat with the Palestinian state he has fought for nearly all his life. But Barak was said to be digging in his heels at giving the Palestinians sovereignty in east Jerusalem, the traditionally Arab sector of the city where they want to set up their capital.
Complicating the effort is Barak's fast-deteriorating political situation. Just before he left for the talks, his governing coalition fell apart, and he barely beat back a no-confidence motion in parliament, and he faces another one.
Other than an absence of about eight hours on Thursday, Clinton has been at Camp David throughout the talks, leading a marathon drive for an accord.
"A variety of people have been up most of the night for the last three nights, so I think you can expect that they're tired, but they're staying at it," his chief spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said Tuesday.
Jerusalem, as it has for years, appeared to be the prime stumbling block to an accord.