JERUSALEM -- As Palestinians and Israeli troops clashed for an eighth day yesterday in the West Bank, President Clinton's Middle East envoy met with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in hopes of nudging the two into peace talks.
Publicly, the Americans said one of envoy Dennis Ross' missions was to pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to work firmly in cooperation with Israeli security against terror groups.
But privately, according to knowledgeable diplomats, Ross was also said to have in hand a strong message from Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, requesting that Netanyahu show more flexibility in dealings with Arafat.
"We have a very publicly tough message for Chairman Arafat," said an American envoy close to Ross. "But we have a tough message for the Israelis as well, just not one we are talking much about."
The peace process fell into a crisis earlier this month after Israel decided to build a Jewish neighborhood on disputed land in East Jerusalem -- acreage that the Palestinians hope would be part of a future capital.
Tensions rose sharply when a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli teen-age girls on a school trip, and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israeli women at a Tel Aviv cafe a week ago.
When Israel suspended political discussions with the Palestinians after the bombing, Palestinian security forces said they would no longer cooperate with their Israeli counterparts -- one of the most important foundations at this stage in the peace process.
But yesterday, as in the last few days, Palestinian police worked to hold back protesters who hurled rocks at Israeli troops in several northern West Bank locations, including Ramallah, Bir Zeit and Nablus. Troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowds. No major injuries were reported.
Israel's greatest immediate fears center on this Sunday's Land Day, the anniversary of Israel's expropriation of Arab land in northern Israel and a traditional day for Israeli Arabs to hold mass protests.
In a show of unity, Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization held a joint news conference with the Islamic militant group Hamas at the Palestinian Information Ministry to announce the joint protests for Sunday.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for last week's suicide bombing at the Tel Aviv cafe. Fatah, while it organized most of the recent West Bank protests, has been a strong supporter of peace with Israel.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said tanks had been moved close to West Bank towns and additional troops were deployed around the West Bank.
Ross expects to return to Washington this weekend to brief Clinton, who reported yesterday, without details, that Ross had been encouraged by his two-hour meeting with Arafat.
"Ambassador Ross had a very good meeting with Chairman Arafat. " Clinton said at the White House. "I don't have anything else to tell you, but he was encouraged by the response of Chairman Arafat to the matters that we discussed here before he left."
Ross then flew to Jerusalem and talked with Netanyahu.
Sources said Ross hoped to talk with Netanyahu about forming a national unity government, composed of centrist politicians who could give Netanyahu stronger support in any deal with the Palestinians than he can now get from his right-wing backers.
"There's hope that there will be national unity discussions," one Western diplomat said. "The idea is, it would give Netanyahu enough cover to suspend the building in East Jerusalem. But there's also a strong possibility that Ross may well be finding out how bad this situation really is."
Pub Date: 3/28/97