October 3, 1996 in Nation/World

Peace Talks End In Disappointment Mideast Leaders Take No Concrete Steps

From Wire Reports

The expressions were somber and the body language tense as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders listened to President Clinton appeal for patience in an edgy Middle East Wednesday, concluding two days of talks that ended in disappointment.

After nearly four hours of face-to-face White House discussions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat headed home without solving any of the countless problems that divide them.

Advancing from recent hostility, however, the two men promised to dispatch negotiators to intensive talks beginning Sunday in Israel. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the sessions are likely to take weeks.

“Please, please give us a chance to make this thing work in the days ahead,” Clinton said in an appeal to Palestinians in particular. “Let’s don’t overreact now. We are in better shape than we were two days ago. We still have a huge amount of work to do.”

Clinton did the talking when the leaders gathered for a final statement in the White House East Room. As the president spoke, Netanyahu and Arafat sat grimly behind him. At one point, Netanyahu smiled and spoke to a weary-looking Arafat, who barely acknowledged him.

The outcome of the talks followed a script crafted by Netanyahu, who kept to his pledge not to offer concessions to Arafat. The Likud Party leader called the summit “a good start” and said the two men “established a greater degree of mutual trust.”

But the result confirmed the worst fears of the Palestinians. Deeply suspicious of Netanyahu, they feel they crossed an ocean to help build peace, only to be given nothing in return.

“There were no positive results,” declared Yasser Abed Rabbo, information minister for the Palestinian Authority. “Mr. Netanyahu lacks the flexibility and moderation. Now we are turning back to the old ideological positions that led the area to decades of confrontation.”

Clinton was clearly disappointed by the failure of Netanyahu and Arafat to take concrete steps. The president took a risk when he convened the emergency two-day summit after the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in years.

While Tuesday’s one-on-one talks between the two leaders were a surprise and a relief to the Americans, Wednesday’s events were frustrating. U.S. negotiators worked with the two delegations until nearly dawn, searching for a formula that both sides would accept.

As the Palestinians passed the word that the talks were breaking down, the leaders, joined by Jordan’s King Hussein, gathered for lunch with President Clinton. Each spoke of his commitment to the peace process.

Netanyahu and Arafat agreed to “continuous negotiations” on several critical issues beginning Tuesday. After withdrawing for 20 minutes of private discussions, the two leaders emerged to declare that the talks will begin instead in the Israeli city of Erez on Sunday.

“Every step is hard,” Clinton told reporters. “It requires both sides to make difficult decisions and to keep their eyes fixed on the prize of lasting peace. But the progress they have made is proof to the world that progress is possible and peace is possible.”

Defensive at times - Republican challenger Bob Dole accused him Tuesday of running a “photo op foreign policy” - Clinton predicted that the personal contact between Netanyahu and Arafat would prove valuable.

“The peace process did not start today, and it will not be finished tomorrow.” Clinton said. “I am convinced that this process, and that these parties, are in better shape in their relation to one another than they were two days ago.”

One week ago, it took American negotiators 12 hours simply to arrange a telephone call between Netanyahu and Arafat, who had met only once and only briefly. As violence worsened and the two men could not agree to meet in the Middle East, the Americans persuaded them to travel to Washington.

A senior administration official said Netanyahu described Arafat as a “partner and a friend” during the summit and that Arafat reciprocated.

But when the leaders and their advisers began to address concrete problems, from the West Bank city of Hebron to restrictions on Palestinian movement, the initial warmth could not be converted into action.

“You then start to try to translate the generalities into specifics and you find it’s not such an easy thing to do,” said the American official, “and certainly it’s not such an easy thing to do in the space of just one night.”

Netanyahu refused to budge in his determination to keep open a tourist tunnel that passes near Arab holy sites in Jerusalem. It was his unannounced decision to open a second entrance in the tunnel last week that triggered a Palestinian revolt, leaving 70 people dead.

Nor did the Israeli leader, in office since May, agree to set a date for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron, where about 450 Jewish settlers are surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians. The previous Israeli government promised a pullout in the 1993 Oslo accords.

Netanyahu said Wednesday that he is “committed” to the redeployment but wants to negotiate better security arrangements before the Israeli government surrenders control to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. He cited last week’s violence, when Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers traded gunfire.

On the delicate issue of access to Israel by Palestinians, Netanyahu said only that he would “look into it. And as soon as I get back to Israel, that’s the first thing I’ll do.”

To the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s promises sounded familiar, and overly vague.

“This is a victory for nobody,” said Hasan Abed Rahman, head of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “There are fundamental differences. The Israelis are willing to commit themselves to the agreement, but they are not willing to commit themselves to the implementation of those agreements.”

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