After the bloodiest week since the landmark 1993 Israel-PLO treaty, President Clinton said Sunday he would meet in Washington on Tuesday with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to salvage the shattered peace process.
Clinton’s announcement came only hours after Israel rebuffed an American appeal and reopened a disputed archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem that runs near the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
When Israel first opened the passage to tourists last week, it ignited simmering Palestinian anger over Netanyahu’s hard-line polices and drew widespread international criticism. Even Israel’s American allies were disturbed by the timing of the action, U.S. officials said.
While the subsequent clashes had largely subsided by Sunday, the reopening of the tunnel after a two-day closure provoked a spate of stone-throwing by Arab protesters. Israeli soldiers and riot police in the cobblestoned Via Dolorosa, where the tunnel emerges, far outnumbered tourists.
The Israeli decision to reopen the 2,000-year-old tunnel also demonstrated just how far apart the Israeli and Palestinian sides remained despite their agreement to meet in Washington.
At a news conference, Clinton urged the parties to return to negotiations, which have been stalled since Israeli elections in May.
“I am prepared to do everything in my power to help the Israelis and the Palestinians end the violence and begin the peace process again in earnest,” Clinton said.
It would appear, however, that the only way for the summit to defuse the violence is if both sides accept concessions they have vowed never to make.
Both Israel and the Palestinians dispatched officials to appear on U.S. television’s Sunday morning interview programs to argue that the confrontation was entirely the fault of the other. There was no indication that either side is ready for compromise.
Arafat also had insisted that he would meet Netanyahu only if the Israeli prime minister agreed to seal the tunnel and proceed with redeploying Israeli troops from most of the West Bank city of Hebron, as required by the peace agreement. That withdrawal is already six months overdue.
But Danny Naveh, Netanyahu’s Cabinet secretary, said no such agreement had been reached.
“There is only one understanding: that we’re going to Washington,” Naveh said.
Netanyahu asserted that the tunnel issue is “not on our table” at the summit. Nor did he show any indication he was prepared to order the Hebron redeployment, saying that the recent firefights between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers were evidence that security in the city could not be entrusted to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
He called for “security modifications” in the treaty between the two sides.
David Bar-Ilan, a Netanyahu spokesman, said Sunday that Israel would insist on renegotiating the terms of the 1995 treaty with regard to Hebron.
He also warned that Israel might try to disarm the approximately 35,000 Palestinian police if the violence continued, an initiative that certainly would provoke massive bloodshed.
But Palestinian officials repeated that the scheduled meeting would be stillborn if it did not address the root causes of the clashes, which killed at least 55 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned that violence would resume if the tunnel remained open.
“I think hell will break loose,” he said. “What we are seeing today after Mr. Arafat succeeded in bringing things back to order is, Mr. Netanyahu surprised the whole world and declared the tunnel reopened. … I urged Mr. Netanyahu to take a courageous step and close this tunnel.”
Clinton also said King Hussein of Jordan would attend the summit. But a key figure in the dispute, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, delayed announcing whether he would also be on hand. There were reports that he insisted that Israel close the tunnel.
Just five weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the Washington talks offer an opportunity and a risk for Clinton. They provide yet another chance for the president to dominate the headlines as Republican challenger Bob Dole struggles in the polls.
Yet there is a measure of danger if the talks fail.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the political risk to the president is “clearly overwhelmed” by the threat to the peace process. Clinton says he believes the role of host and mediator is “his most important assignment as the leader of a nation that has invested so much” in Middle East peace.
The United States has invested more than $100 billion in foreign aid and countless hours of diplomacy in an effort to bring peace to one of the world’s most strategic and unstable regions.
Palestinian areas were largely calm Sunday, although isolated clashes injured three Israelis and two Palestinians.
Protest marches in Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem proceeded peacefully.
In Ramallah, where the first, and some of the fiercest, fighting erupted last week, life appeared to return to normal.
But at the city’s southern entrance, scores of Palestinian police continued to block the main road, preventing residents from approaching Israeli positions.
“The situation is peaceful now,” said Abdullah Mahmoud, 26, a member of the Palestinian national security force. “We all want to live in peace and be like a normal country. We don’t need to see all these weapons.”
But when he was asked about the Israeli suggestion to disarm the Palestinian police, Mahmoud was resolute.
“If they want to take my weapon, they’ll have to kill me first,” he said. “That’s the only way.”
Graphic: Two leaders in conflict