Israel postpones decision on pullout Size of West Bank troop withdrawal to be set after Clinton-Netanyahu talks

January 19, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet put off a decision yesterday on the size of a West Bank troop removal until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns from his meeting with President Clinton.

The decision means Netanyahu could discuss numbers with Clinton tomorrow, but he won't commit Israel to a specific amount of land to give the Palestinians during the Washington summit.

Clinton and the Palestinians have been pressing for months for a significant pullout soon, but Israeli officials said the scope of the next withdrawal won't be decided until after the prime minister's talks.

"It is clear that if we had set a number, it would have elicited immediate public responses from the Palestinians and perhaps from the Americans. That would not have served my aims," Netanyahu said after the Cabinet decision.

"I prefer private consultations with President Clinton and to explain to him our limitations and our flexibility and to try to work out with him the best way to move the [peace] process forward," the prime minister told reporters.

The talks in Washington, which include a Clinton meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Thursday, were called to help break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process. Actions taken last week by Netanyahu and his Cabinet of hard-liners, however, only seemed to widen the division and diminish the chances of a quick breakthrough.

Netanyahu's government first set a series of conditions the Palestinians must meet before Israel will agree to this troop removal. Top among them was waging a consistent fight against terrorist organizations.

Then the Cabinet laid claim to large swaths of the West Bank to protect Israel's national and military interests -- land on which Palestinians hope to build their state.

The Palestinians have criticized the Israeli Cabinet decisions as attempts to torpedo the peace process. Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, said he was not surprised by the Cabinet decision yesterday.

"It's very clear to us that Mr. Netanyahu is continuing his game of stalling, actually a game of deceit," Erekat said in an interview with Cable News Network broadcast on Israel Radio. "We had heard about two days ago that he had called people in Washington and told them if he comes to Washington he can't deliver because he will look like he's under pressure and he cannot act under pressure because his government will fall."

Netanyahu has been a reluctant partner in the peace process. He opposes the land-for-peace philosophy of the 1993 peace accords negotiated in Oslo, Norway. But he agreed to uphold the commitments signed by the previous Israeli administration.

The accords did not specify the size of Israeli troop withdrawals from occupied territories, only that Israeli forces would remain at "specified military locations."

Netanyahu and his hawkish Cabinet consider military locations in the broadest sense.

The initial troop withdrawals came from the Gaza Strip and the large Palestinian cities on the West Bank. The remaining pullbacks are to occur in three phases by mid-1998, and the Palestinians believe they should end up with about 90 percent of the West Bank.

The Washington meeting centers on the second phase of the withdrawals.

The United States has said it expects a "significant and credible" pullback from the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since its victory in the 1967 Middle East war.

The Americans are hoping for a 10 percent to 12 percent pullback; the Israelis have mentioned 6 to 8 percent.

Although the Israeli Cabinet set no precise figure yesterday, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said the Cabinet decision "leaves the prime minister with the opportunity to have a serious discussion with the president."

Naveh, however, could not say when the Cabinet will act on the issue when Netanyahu returns.

"I know Mr. Netanyahu is doing his best to make the Washington meeting fail," Palestinian Cabinet official Nabil Shaath said recently. "We are not going to accept that. We are not going to surrender."

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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