WASHINGTON — Middle East peace talks marked time on Saturday, awaiting President Clinton's return Sunday evening to begin their decisive phase, but friction burst into the open in the Israeli delegation.
While negotiators took a break for the Jewish sabbath, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was forced to issue a statement rebuking unnamed aides for bad-mouthing two senior ministers in his team on the crucial issue of Jerusalem.
Barak's only public comment in 12 days of secret talks came in response to Israeli media reports quoting his entourage as saying the ministers were pressuring him to make concessions on Jerusalem, the main stumbling block in the talks.
"Prime Minister Ehud Barak gives full backing to Ministers Shlomo Ben-Ami and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Barak entirely rejects the veiled criticism that was voiced toward the ministers and he has reprimanded all those involved in the matter," he said.
The ministers had issued their own statement denying allegations that they were goading Barak to take a softer line on Jerusalem and accusing the prime minister's aides of "acting with unparalleled chutzpah (nerve)."
The squabbling in the Israeli camp contrasted with a public show of unity among Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's team and pro-Western Arab states against any watering down of what they see as Palestinian rights in Arab East Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem should be and will be at the forefront of any agreement. Jerusalem is the number one issue for the Arabs and the Moslems," PLO secretary-general Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, told reporters on returning from the West Bank to rejoin the peace talks.
"I am always optimistic, because at the end we will ultimately reach agreement. But I reaffirm we will not accept a partial agreement," Abbas said.
In the Middle East Saturday, hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, urging Arafat to hold out at the summit for the return of the Palestinian refugees and for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers, meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, said there would be no acceptable solution unless U.N. Security Council resolution 242, calling for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war, was applied to East Jerusalem.
Clinton telephoned the leaders of both countries earlier in the week to ask them to encourage Arafat to be flexible, diplomats said. But their ministers' comments suggested they see Jerusalem as a bedrock issue not amenable to flexibility.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met Arafat for an hour on Day 12 of the marathon summit, while Barak spent the Jewish sabbath quietly in his own cabin, officials said.
Clinton is due to land back in Washington at 4:35 p.m. EDT Sunday after curtailing his visit to Japan for a Group of Eight summit and his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, told reporters: "I expect him to get right back to work."
Diplomats say significant progress has been made on most other issues—the borders and powers of a Palestinian state, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But the status of Jerusalem still looked the most likely deal-breaker.
Barak has vowed to maintain Israel's undivided sovereignty over the holy city, although aides have hinted he could accept sharing sovereignty in some parts of Arab East Jerusalem.
Arafat insists Arab East Jerusalem, captured and annexed by Israel in 1967, must be the capital of his Palestinian state.
Aides say he keeps repeating that the Arab leader has not been born who would give away Jerusalem—home to holy sites of Islam and Christianity, as well as Judaism.
On Saturday, thousands of supporters of the militant Islamic group Hamas marched through the streets of Gaza City with banners telling Arafat to quit the Camp David talks.
Shouting "negotiators go home" and "a traitor is someone who sells out the land," about 4,000 Hamas supporters called on Arafat not to make any concessions at the summit.
Barak has broken a 33-year taboo by agreeing even to discuss the status of Jerusalem, which the Israeli mantra insists must remain Israel's "eternal, undivided capital."
The prime minister spoke by telephone to Environment Minister Dalia Itzik on Friday and said the chances of a deal had improved to 60-40, Itzik's spokesman Baruch Leshem told Reuters in Jerusalem. Before the summit began on July 11, Barak rated the chances no better than 50-50.
Israeli sources said unpublished opinion polls conveyed to Barak on Friday showed a majority of Israeli voters opposed redivision of Jerusalem in any form.
It is not clear whether even the treasures of creative U.S. diplomacy, constructive ambiguity or temporizing can overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
An Israeli minister said Friday that Barak had accepted an American proposal for shared sovereignty in some areas of East Jerusalem, only to retract his words after the U.S. hosts protested to the Israeli delegation, diplomats said.
Palestinian spokesmen, choosing their words carefully, said there had been no official written U.S. proposal, although the biggest-selling Palestinian daily al-Quds headlined Saturday's edition "Palestinians reject the American proposal."
Diplomats said the United States was likely to refine its ideas on Jerusalem when Clinton reviews progress at the talks and seeks a way forward.
The closed-door talks nearly collapsed on Wednesday night just before Clinton left for Japan but were resurrected when both sides appeared to recoil at the cost of failure.