THURMONT, Md. — The Middle East peace talks at Camp David collapsed Tuesday in a deadlock over the future of Jerusalem. Conceding failure, President Clinton said the Israelis and Palestinians "couldn't get there."
Clinton returned to the White House to say that the gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had not been bridged but forecast that they will be "because I think the alternative is unthinkable."
"I think they both remain committed to peace," he said. "I think they will both find a way to get there if they don't let time run away from them."
The Israeli and Palestinian delegations said in a statement they intended "to continue their efforts to conclude an agreement on all permanent status issues as soon as possible."
They also said they understood the importance of avoiding unilateral actions.
Barak and Arafat spent two weeks at Camp David with Clinton as the sponsor and sometimes personal mediator in the peace talks.
It had become clear earlier in the day that no serious headway was in sight despite an offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to recognize some sort of Palestinian sovereignty in east Jerusalem.
Palestinian sources said the breaking point came when Israel balked at Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem's walled Old City, offering only access to the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Arafat was infuriated by this, the sources said.
Hassan Abdel Rahman, the PLO's representative in Washington, said Israel's offer of limited
sovereignty was unacceptable and a "nonstarter." He said the Palestinians had insisted on sovereignty over all of the Old City.
"Regarding the issue of Jerusalem, as with other issues, the Palestinians did not change their positions during the discussions, so there was no chance of arriving at an agreement," said Gadi Baltiansky, a spokesman for Barak.
At 3 a.m. Tuesday, Arafat sent a letter to Clinton, saying he saw no point in continuing because the Israeli position on Jerusalem could never lead to an agreement, Palestinian sources said.
"If you ask me did they make enough progress to get this done, 'yes,' " Clinton said.
"I feel that we have the elements here to keep this process going. . . . I think it can happen," Clinton said.
But, "They couldn't get there," he said.
Clinton said he believes there could be Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the end of his term, noting that the two sides had earlier set a Sept. 13 deadline for an agreement.
The president said, as had been disclosed before, that the status of Jerusalem was the more intractable issue. But even on that, he said, there was not "a great deal of disagreement" on the practical, operational questions of the way people there would live under some future accord.
Reaction to the breakdown was quick.
"This failure is another indication that the only choice we have is resistance," said Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. "Only by force are we able to retain our rights. . . . We are ready to become martyrs, and we say one short sentence: They will pay a high price if they think to attack us and reoccupy the land."
The breakdown came despite redoubled efforts by Clinton, who returned to Camp David on Sunday night after a four-day trip to Japan.
For the second night in a row, Clinton held late-night talks, Tuesday's ending at 3:15 a.m., said spokesman P.J. Crowley. The president was up again 5 1/2 hours later in an effort to jump-start a 15th day of talks.
In the course of the contentious summit, there had been repeated reports that one side or the other was ready to pack their bags and walk out. On Wednesday, the White House even formally announced that the talks had ended in failure.
The main point of dispute is Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. Other top issues were the fate of several million Palestinian refugees and the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.
Israel has insisted that Jerusalem can never be divided.
The breakdown came shortly before Clinton was due to leave for Arkansas for a memorial service for Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas political science professor and a close friend who died of cancer.
Barak, who has been under constant pressure from right-wing political opponents at home, got a new reminder Tuesday of the battle that could await him if he makes sweeping concessions to the Palestinians.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a rare news conference broadcast live in prime time on both Israeli TV channels, said he wanted to prevent a "ripping apart" of Israeli society "that could happen in the next few days."
"What we hear from most of the reports out of Camp David does not answer our hopes," Netanyahu said, demanding that Barak reject any deal that would call for sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
The collapse freed Secretary of State Madeleine to flight to Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday night for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian countries. She plans talks there with North Korea's foreign minister on that country's missile program.