U.S. brokers Mideast summit Arafat, Netanyahu agree to meet in Oct. to reach interim deal

September 29, 1998|By Mark Matthews FTC | Mark Matthews FTC,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a rare three-way meeting with President Clinton, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians agreed yesterday to return here in mid-October for "intensive" talks aimed at completing their long-overdue interim peace deal.

Their pledge provided a much-needed boost to the stalemated Middle East peace process, which had become a source of bitter frustration and anti-American sentiment in much of the Arab world.

If an agreement is reached on a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, it would serve as a springboard to new Israeli-Palestinian talks on the most serious problems dividing the two sides.

Clinton announced plans for the summit during a brief televised Oval Office news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, standing alongside him.

"I have asked them to come back to the United States in mid-October with their teams to do the intensive work necessary to see if we can conclude this," Clinton said. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Dennis Ross, the U.S. special Middle East envoy, will travel to the region beforehand to try to hasten the deal, he said.

"All told, it was a good day," the president said.

The summit will offer the president the chance to broker a long-sought diplomatic breakthrough that would put Israelis and Palestinians on a path to a permanent peace agreement.

Coming about two weeks before the Nov. 3 congressional elections, the talks could also serve to deflect public attention from the question of whether Clinton should be impeached and might even enhance Democratic prospects in the elections.

But while saying the two sides had sharply narrowed their disagreements, Clinton acknowledged, "To be candid, there is still a substantial amount of work to be done until a comprehensive agreement can be reached."

Yesterday's 90-minute meeting at the White House failed to meet even the administration's modest expectations. Going into the meeting, U.S. officials had hoped to "lock in" at least a partial agreement between the two sides.

But afterward, Clinton said there was an understanding that "nothing has been agreed to until everything has been agreed to."

The leaders are working under increased time pressure, with the Oslo accords that form the foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations due to expire in May. At that point, Arafat has threatened to declare Palestinian statehood even if no agreement has been reached with Israel. Netanyahu has said such a declaration would explode the peace process.

Yesterday's meeting, which offered the first tangible signs of peacemaking progress in months, followed a weekend of diplomacy in New York hotel suites in the midst of the United Nations General Assembly.

Albright brought Netanyahu and Arafat together late Sunday night, and the two leaders met privately for an hour. After flying to Andrews Air Force Base for the White House meeting, Arafat returned to New York yesterday afternoon to address the General Assembly.

In his speech there, Arafat, in response to public pressure from both the United States and Israel, softened his threat to declare a Palestinian state next May.

"This independent Palestinian state must be established as an embodiment of the right of our people to self-determination," Arafat said. But he coupled his statement with a pledge to continue the peace process.

"I assure you that our people will continue to pursue and protect the peace of the brave in the Middle East. We appeal to you to continue your support for us, as has always been the case in the decisive moments of the history, the present and the future of our people. Help us to achieve the national goal of our people," he said.

The centerpiece of the emerging Israeli-Palestinian deal is a U.S. proposal that would combine an additional Israeli withdrawal from West Bank areas and improved Palestinian cooperation in combating terrorist threats against Israelis.

The months of stalemate have resulted in a significant alteration of the American proposal to Israel's advantage.

The original plan called for an additional 13 percent of the West Bank to be turned over to the Palestinians.

In what the Israelis perceived as an ultimatum, Albright demanded last spring that Israel accept the proposal as the basis for a three-way summit with the president and Arafat. Netanyahu balked, and the summit idea was shelved for the time being.

Since then, the Americans have put forward the idea of setting aside 3 percent of the land as a nature preserve, which the Palestinians could not inhabit or build on.

In a meeting with journalists at Blair House, Netanyahu laid out what he described as a growing threat to Middle East stability arising from rogue regimes such as Iraq and Iran, and a "gushing" of technology from the former Soviet Union that could aid the production of weapons of mass destruction.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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