Prodded by a “very animated” President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands a couple of times and met face-to-face for nearly three hours Tuesday afternoon in search of new formulas to revive a faltering peace process.
According to Israeli sources, another Netanyahu-Arafat meeting appeared in the offing Tuesday night after both sides plunged into lengthy talks with Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
As Clinton launched a politically risky two-day summit, the initial atmospherics were more encouraging than White House officials had hoped.
“We have had some good conversations,” Clinton told reporters in the Oval Office where he met with Arafat, Netanyahu and King Hussein of Jordan.
“Their presence here clearly symbolizes a commitment to end the violence and get the peace process going again. We have come a long way in the last three years. No one wants to turn back. I look forward to making some real progress here.”
Presidential aides said the lengthy afternoon session between Netanyahu and Arafat - only the second time the two men had met - signaled a restoration of mutual trust after last week’s bloody battles that claimed the lives of 76 Israelis and Palestinians.
But the White House cautioned that only a first “positive step” was taken and much heavy lifting remains to bridge substantive disagreements.
Clinton joined King Hussein of Jordan in suggesting an international commission to study a controversial archaeological tunnel near Jewish and Moslem holy places in Jerusalem. Israel’s decision to open a second entrance to the tunnel was the flashpoint for the outbreak of violence that spread to the West Bank and Gaza.
Netanyahu offered Arafat non-stop negotiations without pre-conditions to settle unresolved issues. The Israeli leader reportedly did not rule out a tunnel study, but insisted the new entrance would remain open.
For his part, Arafat pressed for early Israeli military redeployment from the West Bank town of Hebron, where 400 orthodox Jewish settlers live among tens of thousands of Palestinians. Partial Israeli withdrawal is overdue under previous peace accords, but Netanyahu wants greater security for Jewish access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
According to Israeli sources, the Israeli leader could offer an early timetable for thinning out his forces in Hebron - either under mutually agreed terms or as a unilateral Israeli gesture. In an opening move, however, Netanyahu rejected a Clinton suggestion to quickly set a fixed date for withdrawal from Hebron, said Israeli cabinet member Natan Sharansky.
Netanyahu, who blamed Arafat for triggering the violent clashes, insisted on stronger Palestinian guarantees against use of violence when negotiations resume - a demand supported by Clinton. Arafat called for faster implementation of Israeli commitments to Palestinian autonomy and early talks on the future of Jerusalem.
But there were no immediate breakthroughs as the summit moved across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House where Christopher was shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations into the evening.
The summit is expected to end today with formal statements pointing to at least a new round of peace talks. The White House, bolstered by the apparently amicable start, left open the possibility of adding a third day.
The summit actually began Monday evening as Clinton and Hussein plotted strategy to establish a positive climate. It was during that preliminary session that they agreed to change Tuesday’s program and lure Arafat and Netanyahu into a face-to-face session.
Originally, after morning talks with Clinton at the White House, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were scheduled to go to Blair House, the official guest house for visiting dignitaries, where Christopher could practice his shuttle diplomacy.
Instead, Clinton and Hussein orchestrated a lunch break at the White House, with the president inviting his guests to walk over to the library in the residential quarters. After 15 minutes, Clinton and Hussein excused themselves, leaving Netanyahu and Arafat virtually alone for the next 2 hours and 45 minutes to munch on pan-roasted chicken, vegetables, cous-cous, carrot cake with hazelnut cream and caramelized bananas.
At first, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were alone for nearly an hour with just interpreters. Each then was joined by a top adviser - Abu Mazen for Arafat and Yitzhak Molkho for Netanyahu.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said it was a “cordial meeting,” capped by a handshake - the second of the day.