President Clinton declared tonight that the Oslo mini-summit has "revitalized" the Middle East peace process, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now in "high gear" to forge ahead on a basic framework for creating a permanent peace settlement.
Clinton met with the two leaders as the last act of the two-day conclave set up by the Norwegian government to commemorate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and subsequently was assassinated by an Israeli nationalist four years ago this week.
Terje Rod-Larsen, the Norwegian diplomat who coordinates Middle East affairs for the United Nations, said he had planned this Rabin memorial specifically to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians back to the bargaining table.
The strategy evidently worked. "I think the spirit of Rabin was quite present" at today's meeting of Clinton and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a senior White House official said tonight. "It very much infused the atmosphere. . . . There is a new spirit between the two sides."
The atmospherics were evidently less congenial at Clinton's other big meeting of the day, a 50-minute session with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin handed Clinton a letter from Russian President Boris Yeltsin warning that U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system could have "extremely dangerous" consequences for arms control.
The Clinton administration wants to alter the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from building missile defense systems.
Yeltsin did not say what the consequences would be if the United States builds a missile shield, but a senior Russian general said last week that Moscow was prepared to deploy more atomic warheads in response.
In his meeting with Putin, Clinton warned that Russia's offensive against Islamic guerrillas in the separatist region of Chechnya "could entail major loss of life of innocent people," according to White House officials. And that, in turn, would "affect Russia's international reputation, which it's been working very hard to try to restore."
A senior administration official said Clinton told the Russian official, "We don't see how a military solution is going to work in this situation."
In comments to reporters before his session with the president, Putin essentially brushed off international concerns about the fighting in Chechnya. He repeated the Russian position that what happens in the southern region is an internal Russian matter, and that Moscow does not need outside advice on how to deal with it.
But Clinton did offer advice, according to the administration official. The president told Putin that "if there are major civilian casualties" because of Russian military moves in Chechnya, "that is potentially going to turn civilians against a dialogue with the government, that is going to make it harder to achieve a solution."
Putin was one of many presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries who came to Oslo for the memorial sessions in honor of Rabin.
This morning, all the leaders gathered beneath the colorful murals in Oslo's city hall--the same place where Rabin, Arafat, and Israel's Shimon Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago for their work on the Oslo accords. After a haunting anthem was played on the neverlur, a six-foot-long Norwegian hunting horn, a dozen speakers recalled Rabin's legacy.
The most electric moment of the ceremony--and of the entire two-day gathering--came when Rabin's widow, Leah, took the stage. She turned toward a poster-size photo of her husband and spoke directly to it.
"Yitzhak, we are back," she said. "We are back, here in Oslo, in the same hall, five years later. But without you."
The peace process that began with the Oslo accords was largely sidelined following Rabin's assassination and the subsequent Israeli administration of Binyamin Netanyahu. But when Barak defeated Netanyahu in an election for prime minister this year, the Oslo process got a new start.
Today, Barak pledged to take up Rabin's cause. "I vow to you, Yitzhak, a soldier who fell in the battle for peace, that we at the head of the new government of Israel are determined to give your death a meaning by following your legacy until we achieve peace," he said.
In today's meeting with Clinton, Barak and Arafat reportedly agreed to try to get a framework for final peace talks in place by February. That evidently means they will set an agenda and a tentative schedule for dealing with the major unresolved issues, including the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and the rights to precious water resources.
Once the framework is in place, Clinton said, it is possible that all the principals would gather for a Camp David-style summit to hash out the specifics.
CAPTION: Palestinian leader Arafat kisses the hand of Yitzhak Rabin's widow, Leah, at a ceremony in Oslo marking the anniversary of his assassination by an Israeli opposed to Middle East peace accords.
CAPTION: President Clinton, center, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before their meeting. Clinton also met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.