Netanyahu rejects D.C. talks with Arafat Session was intended to loosen stalemate

May 09, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be flying to Washington for a Monday meeting proposed by the White House to break the 14-month stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

The announcement came late yesterday after Netanyahu met for an hour with American peace envoy Dennis Ross to resolve outstanding issues on Israel's withdrawing from more territory in the occupied West Bank.

"He is not going to go on Monday. It's impossible to reach any agreement by Sunday, which is a precondition for the summit on Monday," said David Bar-Illan, a chief aide to the prime minister.

Bar-Illan would say no more about Netanyahu's plans after this weekend.

A White House summit later in the week is unlikely. President Clinton is due to leave Tuesday for Europe.

Clinton invited Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to meet Monday at the White House after a two-day meeting in London this week failed to move the parties any closer to a troop withdrawal.

In another effort to reach an accord, Ross will meet Netanyahu again tonight, after the end of the Jewish Sabbath, an administration official said late Friday.

The Israelis are overdue in their commitment to return more land to the Palestinians as required in the 1994 peace accords. The amount of land to be returned has been a matter of dispute for months.

The United States has pushed for a 13 percent withdrawal -- a proposal the Israelis have called an ultimatum. The Palestinians have agreed to the figure, though it is much less than they believe they are entitled to.

But Netanyahu has insisted that to give any more than 9 percent of the contested land would endanger Israel's security. The Israelis have also complained about Washington's insistence on 13 percent, which they say violates past agreements about Israel's right to determine the scope of redeployment and its security needs.

The Israelis were further annoyed by a comment Thursday by Hillary Rodham Clinton favoring an independent Palestinian state. In a teleconference with students in Switzerland, Mrs. Clinton said, "I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state."

The White House quickly explained that Mrs. Clinton's comments were her personal opinion and did not reflect a change in American policy.

The Israelis accepted the White House explanation.

But privately, one government aide said, "The damage has been done, and in this region it is probably an irreconcilable kind of damage" because the Arab world wouldn't accept that a president's wife would make such a statement without her husband's approval.

The Mideast peace process has been deadlocked since March 1997, when Israel broke ground on a housing development in mostly Arab southeast Jerusalem.

The fate of Jerusalem -- Israel added the eastern sector to its control in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war -- remains one of the thorniest issues between the two sides.

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their own. RTC The future of the city holy to both Judaism and Islam is not to be decided until the final round of peace negotiations.

The prospects of a Monday meeting were dim even before Ross met with Netanyahu. Danny Naveh, Netanyahu's Cabinet secretary and a lead aide on the peace process, raised doubts that his boss would journey to Washington.

"Israel can't formulate its response to the peace proposals in a hurry," Naveh told Israel Radio. "A negotiation that is so important to Israel's fate, to our future, cannot be held with a stopwatch."

Netanyahu was expected to confer with his Cabinet on any substantive changes in Israel's position. But three members -- including hawk Ariel Sharon -- are out of the country.

Netanyahu's strong stance in the recent talks has been applauded by his hawkish government allies. The Israeli public, however, is divided, according to a recent poll.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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