'Hard decisions' on Mideast sought Clinton tells leaders to take steps for peace

January 23, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton wrapped up three days of intensive Middle East intervention yesterday, top officials warned that the peace process is in danger without "hard decisions" by Israelis and Palestinians.

In meetings yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton pressed each side to take parallel steps that would get negotiations back on track.

In a week when much of the White House was distracted, Clinton plunged into the details of Middle East peacemaking more deeply perhaps than any president since Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David accords 20 years ago.

Now the two Middle East leaders will "contemplate the very tough choices they are going to have to make if the peace process is going to move forward," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.

With Netanyahu and Arafat staking out tough terms, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said she probably will meet them again before convening three-way talks aimed at breaking a yearlong impasse.

"We can't go on with endless meetings, but we clearly are willing to have meetings that are necessary, that help the process along. But we want some results soon," Albright told reporters at the White House.

Asked if either leader had shown much flexibility this week, Albright replied: "I do sense that there is some understanding of the other guy's problems. I mean, this is what a negotiation is about, and I think they both understand that."

Changes in PLO charter

She praised Arafat for going part way toward meeting one Israeli demand, repeal of a Palestine Liberation Organization charter calling for the destruction of Israel. The PLO had amended the charter, but until yesterday never made clear which parts that were offensive to Israel had been removed.

Arafat handed Clinton a letter yesterday that spelled out the changes for the first time.

The letter "also emphasizes the PLO's recognition of Israel's VTC right to live in peace and security, and the PLO's commitment to live in peace side by side with Israel," Albright said.

"We welcome this clarification and believe it addresses the concerns" raised by Israel about the PLO charter, Albright said. She called it "an important step," but said further changes may be demanded from the Palestinians.

Besides changes in the charter, Israel is demanding greater Palestinian cooperation in seizing and punishing terrorists before will commit to a significant Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank. Israel wants the Palestinians to extradite accused murderers and halt the rapid release of prisoners.

Israel also wants to plunge quickly into "final status" talks on the most serious issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, such as final borders and Jerusalem, withholding any big territorial withdrawal to provide greater bargaining leverage.

Palestinians, for their part, are demanding an Israeli commitment to a substantial withdrawal before they will join the final status talks. With U.S. support, they also are demanding a freeze of Israeli settlement and road building in the occupied West Bank.

Emerging from the White House after meeting with Clinton yesterday, Arafat insisted that Israel stick to a plan for three withdrawals from the West Bank as spelled out in previous accords between the two sides.

Although Israel has not committed to yield any specific percentage of territory, Arafat said he expected that the three phases must turn over at least 60 percent of the West Bank.

"That's exactly what the agreement specifies," he said.

Arafat aide Saeb Erekat quoted Clinton yesterday as saying: "I want a credible and significant [Israeli] redeployment. I want two digits."

The White House took pains to give Netanyahu and Arafat roughly equal treatment, even though the Palestinian leader is not the head of a country and Israel is a powerful ally.

'Mutual obligations'

Arafat's advisers were cheered by Clinton's opening words during a photo opportunity with Arafat: "I also would like to take just this second to underline the principles of the peace process: mutual obligations and the concept of land for peace so that Israelis can live in security, recognized by all their neighbors, and the Palestinians can realize their aspirations to live as a free people."

In meetings this week, Clinton has laid out a plan for each side to take steps to meet the demands of the other, with each Israeli withdrawal matched by Palestinian moves to improve security.

The United States, through its Central Intelligence Agency station in Israel, has brokered a three-year security pact. But the Israeli government has refused to approve it. Arafat met yesterday with CIA director George Tenet to discuss the issue.

Clinton, during an interview aired Wednesday night on National Public Radio, said: "I think there may be circumstances under which we could take a real leap forward in the Middle East peace process, if we get a break or two." But, he warned, "we may not make any progress at all."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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