Netanyahu hails call for talks, but says Arafat must halt terror Palestinians haven't kept commitment on violence, Israeli leader declares

July 14, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed yesterday a call by the United States for direct talks between his government and the Palestinians to break a 16-month stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

But in an interview, he repeated his contention that the Palestinians have not lived up to their commitments to combat terrorism, and that only if they do so will Israel agree to turn over more land.

A major terrorist attack has not occurred in Israel in 10 months, but Netanyahu attributed the respite in large measure to his government's strong stance on the Oslo accords' land-for-peace policy.

"The firmness of Israeli policy has created a partial response on the Palestinian side," he told The Baltimore Sun. "As a result, we have had a reduction in terrorism, but that is insufficient because at any moment we can have renewed terrorism. The terrorist organizations are still in place, still arming themselves more than ever.

"The terrorists' potential has not been diminished. It may not have been realized in the past year. But it continues to grow to be used against us."

He criticized the Palestinian authority's actions against terrorism as "spot efforts" against "specific terrorists we would identify and they would act against."

"We would have to identify the needle in the haystack. What is required under Oslo is that they take apart the haystack," said Netanyahu.

Netanyahu applauded Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's call last week for direct negotiations between his government and the Palestinian authority of Yasser Arafat to break the stalemate in the peace process.

Peace talks stopped in March 1997 after the Netanyahu government broke ground for a new housing development in southeast Jerusalem, which the Palestinians considered a violation under the Oslo accords.

Piecemeal alternative

The United States has been working since March 1997 to break the stalemate over the extent of an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank. The Americans proposed a 13 percent pullback, but hard-liners in the Netanyahu government argue that giving more than 9 percent would endanger Israel's security.

Another alternative offered by the United States is a plan that would require Israel to return 9 percent immediately and hold in trust 4 percent.

But it is unclear whether the Palestinians would accept this piecemeal approach. The Palestinians have reluctantly supported the U.S. proposal of 13 percent, but believe they are entitled to 40 percent of the West Bank land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

For days, Netanyahu and his top advisers have suggested that the government is close to an agreement on the next troop withdrawal.

"We've narrowed the gaps considerably on the Israeli side of the ledger on obligations. We're more or less very close to an understanding on Israeli redeployment, which is the last obligation we have under the Hebron accords," he said in yesterday's interview, referring to the January 1997 agreement to transfer Hebron to the Palestinians. "Unfortunately, we still have a considerable gap on the fulfillment of the Palestinian obligations."

He cited, as he has repeatedly, dismantling the infrastructure of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, confiscating illegal weapons in the West Bank and Gaza, and stopping a campaign of incitement against Israel.

Negotiation 're-engagement'

Efforts are under way to bring together Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, a moderate in Netanyahu's Cabinet, and Mahmoud Abbas, a top aide to Arafat who is also known as Abu Mazen.

The State Department said yesterday that the meeting is expected to take place after Arafat returns from China late this week.

"What is important is a re-engagement of a process, direct negotiations process between us and the Palestinians," said Netanyahu. "What we should be doing is engaging in serious negotiations where we could address mutual needs and arrive at a satisfactory agreement."

Ahmed Qurei, one of the Palestinians who helped negotiate the Oslo accords with the government of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, responded to Albright's call for renewed talks.

"We are not far away from the table. We are ready to go back to negotiating and accelerate that, but under one condition, that Israel declare their acceptance to the American initiative," he said, referring to the 13 percent plan. "If they want us to renegotiate the American initiative, we are not ready to do that."

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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