Arab-Israeli thaw indicated U.S. envoy Ross ends emergency meetings

tensions appear to lift

March 29, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM -- President Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East ended a 24-hour round of emergency consultations with Palestinians and Israelis yesterday amid signs of an imminent end to the latest recriminations and violence.

Public statements by the Israelis and Palestinians betrayed no moderation after their meetings with Dennis Ross. But there were various indications of a lifting of tensions even as Palestinian youths stoned Israeli soldiers for the eighth straight day, this time in Hebron, and in return were punished with tear gas and rubber bullets.

After weekly prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, some Palestinian youths began stoning Israeli police officers. But the Israelis took no action and let Palestinian guards restore order.

In Morocco, the meeting of the "Jerusalem Committee" of ministers from Islamic nations released an unexpectedly moderate denunciation of Israeli policies. Before meeting there Thursday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Ross had spent two hours talking to King Hassan of Morocco, the chairman of the committee.

There were also reports from Gaza that a number of Islamic militants had been arrested and that Ibrahim Maqadmeh, identified as a leader of the Hamas movement, might be among them. The release of the militants from Palestinian jails over the past several months has been assailed by Israel as an encouragement to the Islamic guerrillas to resume attacks on Israel.

In another sign he was trying to restore calm, Arafat postponed a joint rally of his Fatah movement and Islamic militants, which was to have been held yesterday as a demonstration of Palestinian unity.

U.S. officials said a major thrust of Ross' meeting with Arafat was to persuade him to take convincing steps against violence and terrorism.

"It's clear that until it is established that Arafat is doing everything possible to fight terrorism, it's going to be difficult to deal with the other issues," a U.S. official said.

The first major test of Arafat's readiness to curb violence was expected to come tomorrow, which is "land day" in the Palestinian calendar, the anniversary of an Israeli confiscation of land from Israeli Arabs in 1976.

VTC Israeli security services have made large-scale preparations for potential violence on that day, even moving tanks into position around Palestinian cities.

Israeli and U.S. officials would not confirm that the discussions also covered steps Israel might do to restore confidence.

The current impasse was created after Israel decided to build a Jewish housing project in southeastern Jerusalem and ordered a scheduled withdrawal from the West Bank that Arafat condemned as too small.

Though it was certain that various Israeli steps were discussed yesterday in Ross' three hours of meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior members of his government, the Israelis and Americans evidently agreed not to make these public -- and even to deny them, as Netanyahu did -- because of the prime minister's sensitivity to giving the appearance that he is making concessions to terror.

"If the Palestinian side fulfills its commitments -- again not for just a day or two -- but if we see a basic change during the coming period, we will be able to return the peace process to its course," Netanyahu said after a meeting with Ross.

"I want to say that altogether we spoke only about the issue of terrorism. We did not speak at all about details of continuing the diplomatic process."

The Palestinians were equally unyielding in their public statements.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who met with Ross yesterday, said, "Mr. Netanyahu knows very well and if he takes one look in the mirror he would realize the reasons for this escalation of violence and counter-violence, and Mr. Netanyahu realizes that settlement and peace do not go together."

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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