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Breaking News

Middle East Peace Summit Scheduled for Tomorrow Collapses

Aired December 27, 2000 - 8:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: We begin tonight with some breaking news out of the Middle East. After days of intense negotiations and debate, a Middle East peace summit scheduled for tomorrow in Sharm el-Sheikh appears to have collapsed. Egypt's Information Ministry issued a statement this evening saying that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would not be traveling to Egypt. A canceled summit will be a setback to President Clinton, who had hoped to solidify a peace deal before leaving office.

And joining us now from Washington with the latest on this story is CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett. Major, what are you hearing?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a very cautious reaction here at the White House to this latest development, Catherine. The White House is trying to sift through all this information which it has just received within the last hour. What the White House is trying to find out is first of all, if this a definite and permanent no from the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Barak.

Now, on the -- there has been some comments from Israel just recently suggesting that perhaps it's not a permanent no, that maybe something might be arranged and this summit might be put back together. That's why the White House is being so cautious.

Secondarily, the White House wants to know and doesn't quite know yet whether this means if the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not travel on to Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

If that meeting still goes on, the White House doesn't consider this too much of a setback because they really consider that the crucial meeting. What they hope that Mr. Arafat will find if in fact he does meet with Mr. Mubarak is a green light to go ahead and to continue negotiations with the president and the Israelis that might lead the more talks which then eventually could lead to a possible summit here in Washington, all of which would be trying to build momentum to a final peace deal before the president leaves office on January 20th.

CALLAWAY: Major, do we know exactly what's on the table right? What seems to be the stumbling block at this point?

GARRETT: Well, it would appear, and I would underscore that word appear, that right now the Palestinians are looking for more details; more fine print, if you will, about the outlines of a peace deal that the president has put forth. That proposal arose out of meetings here in Washington at the White House on Saturday.

Now, the senior administration officials have told CNN all week that that proposal did not take the Israelis or the Palestinian by surprise. It was, in fact, a proposal that they had more or less thought workable and that they wanted the president to lay before the world, as it were, on his own and then they could check with their own constituencies to see if they found great fault with it. If they didn't, they thought that would be the beginning point for future negotiations.

What the Palestinian said today in an official response to the White House is they want more details. They want more -- to know more directly about what would happen, for example, to Palestinian refugees who want to return. They also want to know more about sovereignty of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, holy sites there. They want a little bit more meat on the bone, if you will, before they'll agree to further negotiations. Those things may be ironed out; they may not be.

Again, one of the first sort of checkpoints that the White House hoped would be met would be this meeting tomorrow in Sharm el-Sheikh, and right now, the White House is still cautiously optimistic that that may still come off. If it doesn't, it may be back to the drawing board yet again.

(CROSSTALK)

CALLAWAY: And Major, does the White House feel like this is the last chance they're going to have to see any type of agreement reached before Clinton leaves office?

GARRETT: Of that much, we can be sure. A senior administration official told me yesterday this is a critical moment, and I said well, yes, there have been dozens of critical moments. He said, well, this is the most critical one of all.

We have got to move on this. We have got to move on it quickly. If we get some green lights from the Israelis and the Palestinians, we'll bring them here right away. If those meetings are good, we'll try to have summit right away. They know that time is definitely not their ally. Not the ally for the Palestinian or the Israelis either.

All sides seem to want to try to move this forward, but as it's always proved, very difficult once you get down to the nitty-gritty details -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: All right, CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett.

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