WASHINGTON -- Trying to defuse rising Middle East tensions, President Clinton warned Israel yesterday against expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and expressed impatience with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Clinton said of the settlements that "anything that pre-empts the outcome" of future negotiations "cannot be helpful in making peace."
He also prodded the Israelis and Palestinians to try to reach a settlement quickly over the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the volatile West Bank city of Hebron. Negotiators revived talks on Hebron yesterday, but there was no indication of a breakthrough that would hasten the troops' departure.
"There's been very little difference between them for weeks and weeks and weeks now, and we need to get the Hebron agreement over and behind us and go on to other issues," Clinton said.
While his words were far from harsh, and echoed similar comments by the State Department over the past few weeks, they contrasted with the president's past reluctance to criticize Israel or say anything in public that dealt with specific issues in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised again yesterday not to establish any new settlements on the West Bank before further talks are held with Palestinians. But his conservative Likud government has angered Palestinians by moving to expand existing settlements. The government voted last week to restore for settlers tax incentives and investment credits that had been dropped by the Labor Party government in 1992.
The future of Jewish settlements is supposed to be one of the subjects of long-delayed "final status" negotiations that are intended to complete a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinians envision such towns as Hebron as building blocks for an eventual Palestinian state on the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Although the State Department has criticized Israeli settlement policies in recent weeks, Netanyahu's move Friday to increase economic aid to settlers prompted the president himself to react, a senior White House official said.
"He intended to send a signal here," the official said. "That signal was that he was making a change in expression, not a change in policy."
Clinton spoke at a news conference yesterday with John Bruton, the prime minister of Ireland, who holds the presidency of the European Union, and Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission. The president replied, "absolutely," when asked whether the settlements posed an "obstacle to peace."
Before the U.S. elections, Clinton had treated the new Likud government delicately as he campaigned to hold support from the American Jewish community.
In the weeks since, however, unease has grown in Washington and elsewhere that settlements and other sources of tension between Israel and the Palestinians could torpedo the peace process.
Negotiations are stalled on other fronts too, most notably between Israel and Syria.
"The peace process in the Middle East is in a critical situation, as everyone knows," French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette told American reporters yesterday when asked if France planned to increase its role in searching for an agreement. "And the question now, frankly, is not to know who would be around the table, but if there is a table. I'm afraid that we may have a crisis before us."
Clinton's warning on settlements followed a letter sent to the Israeli government by three former secretaries of state and five other high-ranking former government officials urging the Israelis not to take "unilateral actions that would preclude a meaningful settlement and a comprehensive peace."
One of the signers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, has confirmed that it was about Israeli settlements. Other signers included former Secretaries Cyrus R. Vance, James A. Baker III and Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
At his news conference, Clinton also:
Agreed that his administration "probably" should have informed selected members of Congress when it learned that Iran was arming the Bosnian Muslims two years ago.
nTC Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, whom the president has nominated to head the CIA, has been criticized for failing to tell anyone in Congress about this development. In recent days, Lake has conceded privately that this had been a mistake.
"We were not under any legal obligation of any kind, as far as I'm aware, to make any kind of specific notation about the cables that went back and forth regarding this issue," Clinton said. "But in retrospect, [Lake] said it probably would have been better to inform key members of Congress on a confidential basis, and I accept that."
Said he had not decided yet whether to implement a law that calls for U.S. sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Cuba.
After the law was passed, Clinton suspended enforcing it for six months in the face of vociferous opposition from American allies in Europe and North America. Yesterday, Clinton said he would decide by mid-January whether to implement it.
President Santer said the EU would continue to fight the United States on this issue in the World Trade Organization.
Pub Date: 12/17/96