Clinton declines Netanyahu's summit bid President urges Israelis to act to save peace process

April 08, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton turned aside a request yesterday by Israel's prime minister for a Camp David-style summit meeting with the Palestinians and instead urged the Israeli leader to take new actions to salvage the existing peace process.

The White House described an Oval Office meeting between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "profoundly serious."

But officials gave no indication that the meeting produced any positive result other than the two sides' willingness to consider each other's ideas.

Asked beforehand about Netanyahu's call for the United States to hold a Camp David-style summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the president said, "I think it's important not to jump the gun on that."

He added: "The first thing we have to do is get the process going again. There is a pre-existing process."

Netanyahu has proposed compressing the negotiating timetable, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive settlement within six to nine months on the most difficult issues between Israel and the Palestinians. These "final status" issues include the future of Jerusalem, the possible formation of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza.

Under Netanyahu's plan, the talks would be capped by a dramatic gesture: a Camp David-style summit with the United States as host, comparable to the historic 1979 talks, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, that led to peace between Egypt and Israel.

No 'form over substance'

Clinton did not flatly rule out the idea yesterday, but he clearly did not endorse it either, saying, "I think it's important that we not put form over substance here."

Under the existing peace process, any agreement on such issues is put off until 1999, after further Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank.

The United States apparently fears that a failure now on these most sensitive issues might doom the peace process entirely.

After Netanyahu left, having met with the president for 30 minutes over the allotted hour, both Clinton and his spokesman, Mike McCurry, indicated that the exchange had been tense.

"We had a very specific, frank, candid, and long talk, and now we're going to talk to the Palestinians and see whether there's something we can do to get this thing going again," Clinton said. The words "frank" and "candid" are diplomatic code for disagreements.

McCurry said the president had given Netanyahu "some serious things to think about," and said he would meet with top Palestinian officials later this week.

Backdrop of violence

The meeting occurred against the backdrop of renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians and a crisis of confidence in the peace process. Some commentators have called the current friction the most serious since the two sides reached their initial agreement in 1993.

Palestinians say the latest violence was triggered by Israel's decision to break ground on 6,500 new housing units in a historically Arab section of Jerusalem. They charge that this action is intended to cement Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to be the capital of a Palestinian state.

Israel says the city will remain undivided, under Israeli control, and open to worshipers of the three faiths that consider Jerusalem a holy city.

The United States has criticized the Israeli construction as unnecessarily provocative, and Netanyahu indicated in comments to reporters yesterday that Americans had repeated their concerns to him.

"It's well known that the United States has its positions on this subject, and we have our position," the Israeli leader said at a news conference. "And I don't think that will surprise anyone."

Netanyahu rejected the idea of halting the East Jerusalem housing construction, saying that nothing in the existing agreements with Palestinians forbids it. But he repeated a pledge to build new housing for Palestinians in the city, a step that State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns labeled "positive."

Recognizing that they can't stop the East Jerusalem project, U.S. officials want Israel to agree to an overall "pause" in building Jewish settlements. They also are urging Netanyahu to make a broader range of concessions to the Palestinians, including safe passage, a port and airport in Gaza and greater economic prospects for areas under Palestinian control.

Netanyahu defiantly rejected criticism that his conservative Likud-led coalition had obstructed peace. He accused the Palestinian leaders of giving a green light to terror and of failing to keep their signed commitments while Israel fulfilled its own.

"There has been some talk about our giving something, making a concession in return for a real crackdown by the Palestinian authority on the terrorist organization," he earlier told the group Voices United For Israel. "And this means, pure and simple, surrender to terrorism. We are being told to pay for the privilege of not being killed. We are not going to do that."

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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