Clinton prods peace talks Meeting separately with Arafat, Netanyahu, president adds pressure

U.S.-set deadline tonight

Distrust hampers progress on touchy issue of land for security

October 18, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- A day before an American-imposed deadline for a breakthrough, President Clinton flew here yesterday to speed up slow-moving talks between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians.

Clinton spent much of the afternoon closeted separately with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mansions on the secluded Wye Plantation estate here.

Negotiations were to continue late into the night.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart gave no indication of how forceful the president felt he needed to be to bring about a deal.

But he has to overcome an 18-month impasse that has deepened distrust between Israelis and Palestinians.

"The president, as the leader of the U.S., has a unique role here to help both sides understand each other's position," said Lockhart.

"And I think the president has a strong reservoir of trust between both sides."

Meetings with Israeli officials had to be kept low-key before sundown yesterday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. During the summit, Netanyahu and Arafat have had a single one-on-one meeting.

Lockhart said Clinton would return today "if there is a constructive role he can play."

But success is widely expected to require a combination of pressure and incentives.

"He has to have the political will to apply the pressure to make this happen," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute.

"He has the public support and the personal commitment to make it work; it's a question of political will."

Aid would follow deal

If a deal is reached, the United States would consider how it could increase aid to Israelis and Palestinians to implement an agreement.

Compared with the hurdles in the path of an agreement now, the problem of aid is one that officials here would love to face, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said last night.

U.S. officials have set today as at least an informal deadline for achieving an agreement on an interim Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

That would pave the way for the start of negotiations on the most crucial issues blocking a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Our work plan is the same: We blocked out Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Rubin said yesterday.

"I don't want to speculate on what would happen after that."

However, Netanyahu, who is due to return to Israel tomorrow for the opening of the Israeli parliament, has indicated he might stay longer.

Rubin repeated his description of the talks as pragmatic and constructive.

But he offered no sign of significant progress, saying only, "I flatly reject the characterization that nothing has happened here."

Little progress has been reported on the tough issues of land and security.

And some of the body language between Israeli and Palestinian delegations has betrayed months, if not years, of tension and mistrust.

"Tomorrow is D-Day," an Israeli official said yesterday. "It was planned this way: The two sides have it out, and now the president is coming back to step on the accelerator."

The Israeli team will be joined by two politically powerful Cabinet ministers, newly named Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

The two are expected to provide Netanyahu with the necessary political cover to approve an exchange of land for security.

While agreeing in principle to cede to the Palestinians a further 10 percent of the West Bank, plus 3 percent that would be left undeveloped in a "nature preserve," Israel has insisted on a long list of specific steps by the Palestinians to control security threats against Israelis.

One major sticking point between the two sides is a Palestinian demand that new security measures imposed on them be reciprocal.

If they must crack down on Islamic extremists, Israel should do likewise with violent Jews, they argue.

The 13 percent transfer isn't the only territorial issue that poses a problem.

Another is a separate chunk of territory that would shift from shared Israeli-Palestinian control to full Arab control. The Palestinians want to acquire contiguous territory that can eventually form a state, not pockets surrounded by Israeli territory.

The issue is "one of many" that remain unsettled, an Israeli official said: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

Shuttle diplomacy

Clinton flew here by helicopter with his national security director, Samuel R. Berger.

After a brief meeting with aides here, he met with Arafat for 80 minutes at Houghton House, an elegant mansion used as the Palestinians' headquarters.

Afterward, he made a 12-minute call to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At 4: 30, he went into a meeting with Netanyahu.

With him on the U.S. side were Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, CIA Director George Tenet, Berger, national security aide Bruce Reidel and special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross.

Tenet has been deeply involved in helping the two sides develop a workable plan for cooperation on investigating and halting terrorism.

Israelis participating included Natan Sharansky, the Cabinet minister for industry, plus Netanyahu's diplomatic and military aides.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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