LONDON -- Raising the stakes in an attempt to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process yesterday, the Clinton administration handed Israel a deadline to accept U.S. proposals on the next withdrawal stage from occupied Palestinian territory.
If Israel accepts the U.S. proposal to withdraw from disputed land on the West Bank, President Clinton has promised to open the final phase of negotiations during a meeting in Washington on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But if the Israelis balk at the U.S. formula, the Clinton administration would "re-examine" its approach to the Middle East peace process, according to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. She did not spell out measures the United States might take, though it is thought Washington officials would formally declare the details of the proposal to apply pressure on the Israelis.
"We are not going to walk away from the peace process; it is too important to the U.S. and Israel and our friends in the Middle East," Albright said.
Arafat has accepted the U.S. ideas "in principle," Albright said, but Netanyahu continues to hold out against the U.S. plan.
The U.S. pressure came after two days of high-level talks here to try to break the deadlock caused by a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis and an Israeli decision to build a Jewish settlement on land in Arab East Jerusalem.
Albright called the U.S. proposals "fair and balanced," as she ended two days of limousine diplomacy with Netanyahu and Arafat. The two leaders refused to meet face to face during talks that were for the most part gloomy until the final hours.
"We have made some progress," Albright said.
The Clinton administration is believed to be pushing the Israelis to withdraw from a further 13 percent of West Bank territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for improved guarantees of security for Israel from Arafat's Palestinian authority. The Israelis have publicly stated they are willing to give another 9 percent, though there have been hints they would agree to 11 percent.
U.S. officials remain hopeful that a deal can be worked out in time for a White House meeting on Monday, which is envisioned as a launch to months of tough bargaining between Israelis and Palestinians over such hard issues as the future of Jerusalem. Lower-level U.S. and Israeli officials will continue the negotiations over the interim agreement, but Albright will remain in London for at least two days.
"We're neither optimistic nor pessimistic," said James P. Rubin, Albright's spokesman. "There are serious differences. We don't know if we can bridge those gaps."
Before leaving London, Netanyahu said his government would try to work toward an accord.
"We will continue by other means in the coming days to resolve difficulties to be able to meet in Washington next week, perhaps to finalize a settlement," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu emphasized "the difficulty arises that we cannot compromise on Israel's security."
The Israeli leader has been pressing for months to reach the final stage of negotiations to tackle the major issues: Palestinian refugees, borders, and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. The two sides face a May 1999 deadline for a final agreement to be reached.
But just getting past the interim hurdle could be difficult for Netanyahu.
Even if the Israeli leader were to abandon his personal inclinations against concessions to the Palestinians, he faces major opposition within his ranks in Israel, where hard-liners have threatened to topple his government if he makes more land concessions with the Palestinians.
One right-wing leader, Michael Kleiner, applauded Netanyahu's tactics in London, saying the Israeli leader "stood his ground even though he was under heavy pressure." But Kleiner, whose group claims to have the support of 17 of the 120 members of the Israeli parliament, said that if Netanyahu agrees to a 9 percent withdrawal, "We will topple him."
Arafat, who had been publicly pessimistic for two days, expressed a minimum of optimism when he said: "I cannot say that the London talks failed."
"The important thing for us is to reach an agreement, to achieve results and to protect the peace process," he added.
But later, speaking with reporters in Morocco where he was expected to meet with King Hassan, Arafat criticized Netanyahu for "not respecting peace accords."
"Netanyahu has remained in his position which maintains the deadlock," Arafat added.
Pub Date: 5/06/98