Middle East peace stalled on West Bank No gains: U.S. negotiator Ross finds only intransigence and frustration in four days of talks.

March 31, 1998

DENNIS ROSS, the chief American negotiator of the Middle East peace process, comes back without achievement after four days of shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians and neighbors.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted a plan for his country to give up 13.1 percent of the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu is not keeping an agreement on pullbacks that he signed last year.

The days of excitement about joint economic development that followed the Oslo peace accords ended with the May 1996 election in Israel that, by an eyelash, made the accord's greatest critic the nation's leader. Whether Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, would have kept the accord in good faith is a fair question, but one which Mr. Netanyahu has not allowed to be tested.

Mr. Netanyahu, who is controversial in Israel for many reasons, is putting the powerful U.S.-Israeli friendship at risk.

Three policies are weakening the link. The most important is his intransigence in relations with the Palestinians.

In fairness, this is based on his honest convictions. He is asked by Washington to honor obligations undertaken by the Labor government he ousted in May 1996.

A second strain is between Israel and the Conservative and Reform majority of the American Jewish community, long Israel's strongest champions outside its borders. The drive of small religious parties in Israel to deny conversions to Judaism unless conducted under Orthodox auspices has strained Israel's relations with the diaspora.

In this, Mr. Netanyahu is standing only on political expediency, to hold religious parties in his coalition, giving them greater influence than numbers justify.

The third strain is caused by Israel's judicial system, which is blocking extradition of Samuel Sheinbein, 17, to stand trial in Montgomery County for the thrill murder of a friend. Young Sheinbein is an American, born in the United States, whose claim to Israeli citizenship is specious. Americans do not accept this obstruction of justice.

Mr. Netanyahu would be in a stronger position to stonewall Mr. Ross were he doing more to placate U.S. Jewry on their religion and doing everything possible to send Samuel Sheinbein to Maryland for trial. As it stands, he is trying U.S. patience on all fronts -- if not with Israel, with his government.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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