Cairo, Egypt President Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday that Israel and the Palestinians can reach agreement by the end of September and pledged to push negotiations beyond what Clinton called the "next big hump" to resolve such sensitive issues as the fate of Jerusalem.
"We are doing our best to find a solution. We hope to finish it by September. We want that," Mubarak said in brief remarks before the two leaders held their first meeting since the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at Camp David on July 25. "I think this will be reached."
"Time is short," Clinton warned before the meeting, which took place while his plane refueled at Cairo airport enroute back to Washington after a three-day trip to Nigeria and Tanzania. But he added: "We're going to work together and see if we can find a way to help the parties get over this next big hump."
Mubarak's optimistic assessment comes at a potential make-or-break moment for Clinton's efforts to help broker a final Arab-Israeli agreement before he leaves office in January.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be in New York for a Sept. 6 millennium year summit of world leaders at the United Nations. Clinton has separate meetings scheduled with each of them, sessions that could be joined in a resumption of direct negotiations.
More specifically, the two sides had set Sept. 13 as a deadline for reaching a "framework agreement" outlining the elements of a treaty ending the half-century of hostility sparked by creation of the Jewish state in what had been Palestine. That is also the date by which the Palestinian leadership has said it will declare statehood unilaterally, on land Israel has already ceded, if a peace agreement has not been reached.
The deadline, on both counts, is a loose one and Arafat has suggested the declaration of a state could be postponed again. But there is a widespread sense among all parties that time is running short to capitalize on progress made at Camp David in July. During extended talks at the presidential retreat in Maryland, Israel made substantial concessions on land and other issues and the two sides for the first time broached such core emotional issues as control of East Jerusalem and its religious sites important to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Israel, which captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordanian control in 1967, has vowed to retain sovereignty over the entire city, which is the national capital. The Palestinians, however, have pledged to establish their own capital in the eastern, Arab-populated neighborhoods, which they and their Arab allies say must be returned under international law and the U.N. Security Council resolutions that underlie peace negotiations.
Of particular sensitivity in Jerusalem is the sacred site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood until its destruction by a Roman army in 70 A.D. and on top of which sits what Muslims call the Noble Enclosure. This includes the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-most important Islamic shrine, which commemorates the Prophet Mohammed's ascent into Heaven.
Despite the optimism exhibited Tuesday, Middle East diplomats and analysts fear the presidential election season in the United States could eventually limit Clinton's ability to help the two sides find a compromise. At the same time, they note, Barak is struggling to retain his leadership of a divided Israeli parliament.
If an agreement is not reached soon, these diplomats and analysts say, momentum would be lost and a new set of U.S. and Israeli politicians brought on stage. Arab leaders, including Mubarak, have cautioned that such a breakdown, and the implied failure to reach agreement particularly over control of East Jersusalem, could trigger a violent backlash.