Rabin visit ends with no new concessions made toward peace

March 17, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton failed yesterday to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to commit his government to major concessions that might bring Palestinians back to negotiations and rescue the Middle East peace process.

Mr. Rabin's two-day Washington visit thus ended without resolving a stalemate that began with the massacre Feb. 25 of at least 29 Palestinians in Hebron.

After meeting with the prime minister at the White House yesterday, Mr. Clinton said the two had agreed that "concrete measures" were needed to boost security both for Palestinians and for Israelis after the Hebron attack by an extremist Israeli settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein.

But Mr. Clinton outlined no new measures, and officials said later that although Mr. Rabin was considering new steps, he had not committed himself to anything specific. In fact, the prime minister made the point privately that if Israel made concessions before the Palestine Liberation Organization returned to peace talks, the PLO would simply demand more, U.S. officials said.

At a news conference with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Rabin said his government believed it already was doing enough by carrying out Cabinet decisions to outlaw two extremist Israeli groups; by detaining individual settlers; and by confiscating some of their weapons.

"We don't think it appropriate to raise new demands after every terrorist attack," Mr. Rabin said. He urged Palestinians to follow Israel's example of continuing to pursue peace despite violent setbacks.

In one modest concession, Mr. Rabin suggested that the Palestinians could restore the Arab police force that existed before the six-year Arab uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories. Such a force, which used to number about 900, could operate outside the areas governed by an Israeli-PLO accord signed in September but would fall under Israeli command, Israeli diplomats said.

"We are disappointed by Rabin's position," Yasser Abed-Rabbo, member of the PLO executive committee, said in Tunis, where the PLO is based. "The Israeli government did not respond in any positive way to our demands, and [this] leads us to a kind of a deadlock."

The Hebron massacre occurred as Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating the details for implementation of the accord signed in September on the White House lawn. Since then, U.S. officials have worked behind the scenes to restart both these talks on limited PLO autonomy in the occupied territories and the overall Mideast peace process, but have avoided putting public pressure on Israel.

In view of the stalled Palestinian talks, Mr. Rabin and Mr. Clinton urged Syria to return to talks with Israel that were broken off after the massacre. Such a move by Syria would put added pressure on Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, to end the stalemate. It was far from clear yesterday, however, that Syria would be willing to move ahead on its own.

Expressing hope of a peace treaty with Syria this year, Mr. Rabin said he was prepared to make a "painful decision" to get it.

But he did not mention Syria's demand that Israel surrender the strategically important Golan Heights from which Syria attacked Israel in 1967. The Golan Heights were captured and eventually annexed by Israel.

"We will not compromise our security," Mr. Rabin said, "but we will stand ready to do what is required of us if the Syrians are ready to do what is required of them."

Mr. Clinton, who called Syrian President Hafez Assad this week, LTC said the "U.S. stands ready to help them achieve that lasting peace that can end the Arab-Israeli conflict and transform the Middle East."

The Clinton-Rabin meeting exposed the conflicting pressures on the White House as it tries to rescue the possibility of a Mideast peace breakthrough this year.

The White House recognizes that Mr. Arafat, already in political trouble with Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, has been further weakened in the aftermath of the massacre at the Hebron mosque. As a result, he needs political cover in the form of better protection for Palestinians who are under threat of attack by armed Israeli settlers.

One Palestinian demand is for an armed international presence; another is that Israel disarm the settlers, who include several thousand militants.

But Clinton administration officials insist that Israel and the Palestinians reach agreement themselves in carrying out the September accord without strong U.S. intervention.

"They wrote this deal," said a senior administration official who has followed the peace process closely. "If a third party has to come in and adjudicate [disputes] and implement it, there will be no trust between them."

Although a number of ideas were discussed with Mr. Rabin yesterday, Mr. Clinton did not push any particular one.

Administration officials seem intent on shoring up Mr. Rabin's political standing in Israel.

They are also eager not to alienate pro-Israeli American Jews, who represent a strong Democratic Party constituency, by appearing to pressure Israel.

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