No accord on Mideast talks go on

Two key Israelis arrive, meet with Clinton and Gore

Wye discussions extended

Netanyahu, Arafat have not met directly since Friday's lunch

October 19, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- The leaders of Israel and the Palestinians failed to meet President Clinton's goal of reaching an agreement by last night, and all sides agreed to resume discussions today.

The decision to extend the talks came after Clinton, investing his prestige as a peacemaker, spent much of the weekend closeted with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat in a bid to end their 18-month impasse. The two sides are trying to reach an agreement that would include a partial Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.

Adding urgency to yesterday's talks, both the president and Vice President Al Gore flew by helicopter to the conference site at Wye Plantation, where the Americans hope a tranquil, secluded setting will improve chances of a deal.

For the first time, Israel's delegation was up to full strength, with the arrival yesterday of two Cabinet heavyweights: Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Announcing the extension, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "We think it's in the best interest of the peace process and the parties to continue the discussions we've had for the last four days."

He avoided any characterization of the talks except to say that "work is continuing at a good pace. Effort is being made. The overall mood and atmosphere justifies continuing the discussions."

But in ominous signs, U.S. officials were unable to say whether Clinton would join the talks today, and Netanyahu and Arafat did not have any direct talks as of late yesterday.

Netanyahu and Arafat, whose mutual suspicion is well-known, have not had a single face-to-face meeting since their lunch together on Friday and they hadn't met for 11 months until Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright arranged two meetings in September during the United Nations General Assembly.

Israelis said the major stumbling block was the Palestinians' unwillingness to meet Israel's demands on fighting terrorism, including collecting unauthorized weapons. The Israelis also have demanded that the Palestinians slash their police force, which Israel views as a quasi-army.

Another sticking point is the Palestinian demand that Israel commit itself to an Israeli troop withdrawal after the pullout being negotiated. Previous agreements called for three Israeli withdrawals before negotiations on the most crucial issues blocking peace between Israel and the Palestinians: the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood and the return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Early yesterday, Rubin said that there was time for them to reach agreement if the two sides have the "political will" to do so.

"There is time to complete the work if the political will is there to make the tough decisions," Rubin said. "We will know this when we see it." He dismissed suggestions that a partial agreement could be reached requiring many weeks of further talks before a final deal was struck.

"We have no plans for such a multi-week extension."

The arrival early yesterday of Sharon and Mordechai was widely expected to give Netanyahu the political cover he needed to make the necessary concessions to close the deal. The two ministers arrived together by plane and cheerfully greeted reporters. "Everything is all right," Mordechai declared.

But Sharon's arrival was accompanied by an embarrassing flap. Two days earlier, he had visited Jordan's King Hussein at the Mayo Clinic, where the monarch is being treated for lymphatic cancer. Yesterday, an Israeli newspaper reported that United States officials believe Hussein is terminally ill and that the United States and Israel were discussing how stable the tiny kingdom would be under the king's brother, Crown Prince Hassan.

Sharon denied making any evaluation of the king's health and issued a statement praising the king, whom he called "a great humanitarian and a close friend."

Albright called the king to deny that U.S. officials feared for his health and for Jordan's stability. The State Department took the unusual step of issuing a statement restating the "ironclad" U.S. commitment to Jordan.

Increasing the pressure on Israeli negotiators, a group of Israeli victims of terrorism trailed them here and kept up a vigil on the fringe of the talks. They met with Netanyahu Friday in nearby St. Michaels. Yesterday they met with Natan Sharansky, the former Russian dissident who is the Israeli industry minister.

A spokesman said the group had been assured by Netanyahu that he would insist, in any deal, that the Palestinians turn over to Israel some 35 accused terrorists.

Yesterday began with a meeting between Netanyahu and Albright before the president arrived. After meeting with aides, Clinton and Gore met with Sharon and Mordechai. Gore left early to meet separately with Netanyahu. Then the top U.S. and Israeli officials had lunch together.

Late yesterday afternoon, Clinton met with Arafat for about an hour, and was to resume meeting with him after eating dinner privately with U.S. aides.

"At this point, I don't expect the three leaders will meet tonight," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said last night.

U.S. mediator Dennis Ross has won acceptance from both sides for a 13 percent Israeli withdrawal, with 3 percent of that to be left undeveloped as a "nature preserve."

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 promises to be much tougher negotiations ahead.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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