Wye talks avert crisis Netanyahu demands Arafat concessions, threatens to walk out

Bargaining into the night

U.S. formula combines agreed-upon points, ideas to bridge gaps

October 22, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- Bowing to American pressure, Israel backed away from a threat to abandon the Middle East peace talks yesterday and launched into all-night bargaining over a U.S.-proposed land-for-security deal with the Palestinians.

"Israel wishes to achieve an agreement and hopes there is a similar desire on the Palestinians' side," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last night after a lengthy meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on security guarantees.

Squaring off in a game of diplomatic hardball, the Israelis had demanded two key Palestinian concessions and said they would leave the summit at 10 p.m., but backed away after U.S. officials refused to squeeze further concessions out of the Palestinians.

The U.S. formula includes previously agreed-upon Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Palestinian efforts to curb terrorism -- and proposals to bridge remaining differences over those issues.

Once negotiations resumed last night after a day of tension and intense media attention, it appeared that a final interim agreement could be reached today.

Meeting twice with Netanyahu, Albright presented a proposed U.S. text of an agreement, and agreed to some changes. She then met with Arafat to work through the document.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the full text will have been presented to Arafat by the end of the night, and that Albright will confer with President Clinton early today to decide the next move.

Clinton, who has invested 55 hours in intense personal diplomacy at Wye Plantation, stayed away yesterday in a sign that he had finished mediating -- at least for the moment.

'Significant gaps'

In a day of souring atmosphere and thinning patience, Rubin said earlier that despite strenuous negotiations that had brought the Israelis and Palestinians closer after seven days, there were "significant, significant gaps remaining."

"Secretary Albright has now been here for seven days and seven nights. The president has spent an enormous amount of time here. The vice president has been here; other key players have been here. But we can't make decisions for them. They have to make the tough decisions," Rubin said.

About 6 p.m., Netanyahu issued a statement saying "there can be no agreement" unless the Palestinians agree to two demands: "the extradition of terrorists and a revision of the Palestinian covenant calling for the destruction of Israel."

"The prime minister and the Israeli delegations have packed their bags," he said. "Takeoff is planned for 10 p.m." The Israelis, however, quickly wavered on the departure time.

Netanyahu made a conference call to Jewish-American leaders, blaming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the impasse and asking for support if he had to leave the summit.

If an agreement is reached, the Israelis and Palestinians would proceed to so-called "final-status" negotiations on the most contentious issues, including the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood.

Previous accords called for the final-status talks to be well under way by now, in order to meet a May 4 deadline. But an 18-month impasse sparked by terrorist attacks on Israel has upset the timetable to the point that even with an agreement here, there would be just six months left to settle issues that have festered for decades.

Rubin said an Israeli pullout from the negotiations "would certainly be an unfortunate development since we believe that there is a sufficient basis to proceed and do work to provide security for the people of Israel and the prospect for peace to the people of Israel and the Palestinian people."

But when Rubin was asked whether the Americans would present the latest Israeli demands to the Palestinians, he replied "no." There had already been "serious work," he said, which had produced "a sufficient basis for discussion."

He said the U.S. security proposals were basically set -- the results of months of meetings with both sides by CIA officials and work this week by George Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

"I'm not going to rule out nuances and details, but the elements of our initiative have been there from the beginning," Rubin said.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, accused the Israelis of using political blackmail and presenting demands as a pretext for scuttling the negotiations. Ahmad Tibi, an adviser to Arafat, said the Americans and Palestinians were in sync, a statement Rubin refused to confirm.

"We said yes for the proposals of President Clinton. We're waiting for a yes from Netanyahu," Tibi said.

He indicated that Arafat was enjoying the public disagreement between Israel and the United States, its foremost international ally and patron.

Arafat directed Tibi to deliver flowers yesterday to mark Netanyahu's 49th birthday and called the prime minister to express the hope that the sides could achieve an agreement as soon as possible.

The Israeli demands

The last-minute Israeli demands are those that they have made publicly for some time.

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