Amid familiar harsh words, Mideast talks open on Shore Netanyahu, Arafat take hard-line positions as Clinton seeks cooperation

October 16, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- The leaders of Israel and the Palestinians opened a weekend of bareknuckle bargaining at idyllic Wye Plantation yesterday after staking out familiar hard-line positions and ignoring President Clinton's admonition to avoid public comment.

After joining the president in a brief ceremony at the White House launching negotiations over land and security, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Palestinians "fight terrorism in word and deed."

He said they must put a stop to incitement of extremists and make additional moves to annul a Palestinian charter calling for Israel's destruction.

"We're asked to give additional territory. We want to ensure that this territory doesn't become a base and a haven for terrorists to attack us, as happened before," Netanyahu told reporters outside the White House.

"If they do their part, we shall do our part," said Netanyahu before leaving Washington to fly by helicopter across the Chesapeake Bay to join Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the tranquil, 1,100-acre retreat on the Wye River.

Standing at the same spot moments later, Arafat rejoined: "Peace is the most important platform for security, and he has to remember this." He noted that Palestinians did not hold a monopoly on violence, saying: "Some of the extremist gangsters have killed my partner [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin."

Hours later, the two leaders and their delegations joined Clinton around a U-shaped table in a paneled conference room at Wye Woods.

Clinton, in brief opening remarks, promised to "do whatever we can" to make the summit succeed and was prepared to return from Washington to mediate as needed.

The president is putting his prestige as a peacemaker on the line in a high-stakes weekend push for an agreement after 17 months in which his efforts to break the Middle East logjam have been largely futile.

Earlier, standing in a sun-dappled White House Rose Garden bright with yellow chrysanthemums, Netanyahu on his right and Arafat at his left, Clinton spelled out simple realities that frequently get lost in the rigid religious and ideological battles of the Middle East.

"First, Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors. And what they must do, they must do together or it will not be done at all. Second, mutual respect and understanding is required for any meaningful and enduring agreement."

Clinton said "concessions that seem hard now will seem far less important in the light of an accord that moves Israelis and Palestinians closer to lasting peace."

Showing uncharacteristic deference, Netanyahu and Arafat -Z listened in silence before slowly accompanying the president into the White House.

Clinton, who in recent months often has seen meetings with foreign leaders embarrassingly interrupted by questions about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, quickly cut them off.

"There is so much work to be done, and all three of us have determined that we should not at this moment take questions but that we should get about the business at hand."

Later, on leaving the White House, Netanyahu was the first to flout this understanding, striding to waiting cameras and microphones to deliver lengthy responses in Hebrew to the Israeli press corps, at times shaking his fist for emphasis.

Asked about warnings from members of his right-wing coalition, who have threatened to bolt if he yields too much, Netanyahu replied that if a left-wing government came to power, they would give up 100 percent of the territory to the Palestinians.

He will be joined here by three of the strongest members of his Cabinet: newly appointed Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, a hero to the right-wing Jewish settlers, whose hard-line views and larger-than-life personality add a fiery, wild-card element to the talks; Yitzhak Mordechai, defense minister; and Natan Sharansky, the Russian emigre and former Soviet dissident who serves as minister of trade and industry.

At issue this week is an interim withdrawal agreement that has been bogged down for a year and a half by mutual suspicion between Palestinians and Israelis and resistance to American pressure by Netanyahu.

U.S. mediator Dennis Ross has won acceptance from both sides of a 13 percent Israeli withdrawal, at this stage, with 3 percent of that to be left undeveloped as a "nature preserve," providing a buffer between Arab and Jewish populations.

But the deal won't be settled without an agreement on stronger anti-terrorist security measures by the Palestinians and an understanding of how the two peoples can move to what promise to be much tougher negotiations ahead.

Israelis want the Palestinians to accept and carry out a multi-part plan of security measures, which would include confiscating weapons, slashing the number of Palestinian policemen, handing over of terrorists and trying to break the Islamic extremist "infrastructure" that promotes terror.

Israelis see a three-month period ahead in which they would withdraw in stages as Palestinians meet specific security milestones.

Palestinians have stuck to their insistence on another Israeli withdrawal as called for in previous agreements, beyond the 13 percent they would be getting now. They hope to obtain as much territory as possible before negotiating the "final-status" issues of Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem.

Israelis want to bypass this next withdrawal and enter "final status" talks right away.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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