WASHINGTON -- Having lost a public game of hardball with Israel, the Clinton administration resumed quiet diplomacy yesterday to try to rescue a Middle East peace process that officials say is dangerously close to collapse.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met at the Willard Hotel here for 90 minutes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to explore how to refine a U.S. proposal for a further Israeli pullback from the West Bank that Israel has rejected.
A second meeting was planned for today.
A Netanyahu aide, David Bar-Ilan, called the meeting constructive, though a State Department spokesman, James Rubin, avoided any characterization.
There was no sign that Netanyahu was any closer to accepting the firm figure of 13 percent of the West Bank from which the United States insists Israel withdraw.
Bar-Ilan insisted in an interview that a withdrawal of more than 9 percent would endanger Israeli security.
The fact that the administration agreed to meet with the Israeli prime minister despite his rejection of its demand marked a White House retreat from confrontation with its Middle East ally.
Netanyahu, who has further meetings planned with members of Congress and American Jewish organizations, is expected to try to solidify American support against any renewed administration pressure.
In London a week ago, Albright effectively set last Monday as a deadline for Israel and the Palestinians to accept U.S. proposals. The interim withdrawal would bring 40 percent of the West Bank under Palestinian control.
That was the condition for a White House summit that would launch the final set of negotiations to complete an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Albright warned last week that if the 13 percent withdrawal was not accepted, the administration would reassess its whole approach to the peace process.
When Israel rebuffed the proposal, the administration avoided what many anticipated would be its next move: a public assessment of whom it considered to blame for the impasse. Instead, President Clinton instructed Albright to meet with Netanyahu at the start of his visit here this week.
The Israelis avoided gloating yesterday.
"It was not a question of arm-wrestling or seeing who would blink first," Bar-Ilan said. But, he said, Netanyahu no longer feels under time pressure: "We're not going to allow a deadline to determine what we do."
Jewish groups said the administration pulled back after complaints from Israel and American Jewish organizations about a U.S. "ultimatum" and after distress over Hillary Rodham Clinton's declared public support for a Palestinian state, which Israel opposes.
"There are people in the administration feeling they have not handled this with the greatest sensitivity," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
While Washington backed away from confronting him, Netanyahu faced pressure at home from his government's right wing. Ariel Sharon, a leading hawk in the Israeli Cabinet who also was in the United States, refused to join the prime minister in his meeting with Albright. He is reported to be insistent on not yielding any more than a further 9 percent of the West Bank.
"I think we've seen the limits to how far this administration is likely to go" in challenging the Israeli government, said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy group that backs the peace process.
Thrown onto the defensive, the administration insisted it was Netanyahu who had sought American mediation in the first place. In a speech here Tuesday, Albright countered accusations in Israel and within the American Jewish community that the United States was imposing an ultimatum on Netanyahu.
Throughout the speech, however, the secretary of state laid heavy responsibility on the Israeli government for the dangerous current impasse in the peace process.
Albright noted that Palestinian leaders had already taken political risks to accept the American proposal. She said the administration's plan gave uppermost priority to Israel's security and argued that Palestinian leaders had, even in the absence of an agreement, made a "concerted effort" to combat terrorism.
She also warned that the peace process was close to collapse.
"The very idea that negotiations can peacefully resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is now under threat," Albright said.
Queried by reporters later, she said: "If this particular approach does not work, what we're going to have to do is re-examine how we go about it."
The current return to quiet diplomacy may be only temporary. The administration fears that the opportunity for achieving a comprehensive Middle East peace may rapidly be slipping away.
"Albright knows her own personal credibility is at risk here," Smerling said. "She can't afford to be seen as someone who talks like Harry Truman and acts like [former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher in the Middle East."
Pub Date: 5/14/98