Talks fail to budge Israel on pullback Clinton, Netanyahu in late night session

January 21, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon | Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton proposed his own ideas to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel yesterday for ways to break a deadlock in Middle East peacemaking, but he failed to secure a commitment on the key issue of an Israeli pullback from the West Bank.

With both leaders trying to put aside the friction evident between them in recent months, Netanyahu spent most of the day closeted with the president and other top U.S. officials. After a 90-minute meeting yesterday, the Israeli leader returned to the White House last night for a second 90-minute session with Clinton and a few top aides that broke up just before midnight.

A senior administration official said early this morning that the president had laid out for the prime minister what the United States believed would be needed to put the peace process back on track. But the two men failed to agree on any plan that might bridge the gap that has stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for a year, the official said.

"This gap has existed for now a year," the administration official said. "It's not going to be closed in a night."

The meetings with Netanyahu yesterday were the first of a pair of sessions intended to revive the peace process and end a prolonged crisis that threatens the stability of the Middle East. Clinton plans to meet with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, tomorrow.

Based on the account of last night's meeting, though, it appears that Clinton will be unable to present the Palestinians with a proposal they can accept.

The official who briefed reporters at the White House said that after a year of intensive diplomacy by the president and his top advisers, "we have a pretty good idea of what it will take" to advance the negotiations. But, this official said, the president could not reach "closure" with the prime minister on a number of issues.

In his meetings with Netanyahu, Clinton tried to reconcile Israel's demands for an end to Arab violence with Palestinians' insistence on a sizable and rapid Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. A key sticking point is that Netanyahu has refused to agree to a specific percentage of land that Israel will give up before its security concerns are addressed.

"I think we can succeed," Clinton told reporters. "I think what we ought to talk about is what both sides can do now to get the peace process moving again."

For his part, Netanyahu said: "It was a serious effort at finding common ground. What we have talked about is an attempt to achieve an overall package that, in addition to the specific steps, would be a package of goodwill.

"The goodwill is there, the pieces are there. We're trying to put them together."

In an interview with Fox News last night, Netanyahu said he and the president and the secretary of state were discussing a "fair deal" in which, "as the Palestinians comply with their promises, Israel withdraws from territory that is not vital for its defenses."

Briefing reporters, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said: "The president laid out some of his ideas in an attempt to bridge the gaps which still exist. What you see now is a work in progress. We are discussing the prime minister's reactions to the president's ideas and doing serious work."

Netanyahu spoke of a possible "package" that would link further withdrawal from the West Bank, as required by the Oslo agreements and demanded by the United States, with Palestinian co-operation on security for Israelis.

The Israeli leader has stressed, in particular, the need for the governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organization to repeal parts of the PLO covenant that call for the destruction of Israel.

"We discussed redeployment," Netanyahu told reporters. "I explained our security concerns but, equally, our willingness to make that redeployment subject to our security concerns and, of course, seeing that measure of Palestinian compliance which has been lacking so far."

Necessary ingredients

Officials refused to spell out Clinton's "ideas," which were mentioned by Albright. But these ideas were presumed to include a formulation of what U.S. officials believe are the necessary ingredients of any progress between Israel and the Palestinians: A "significant" and "credible" Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank that would leave the Palestinians not only with more territory but with contiguous pieces of land that could eventually constitute a state.

Palestinian compliance with pledges to crack down on terrorism.

A "timeout" on any moves that alarm the other side, particularly the construction of Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians.

Acceleration of negotiations on the most serious issues separating Israelis and Palestinians: the question of Palestinian statehood, borders and the ultimate status of Jerusalem.

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