U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross ended his emergency Middle East mission Wednesday with an unsuccessful appeal to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease the punishing sanctions levied against Palestinians since last month’s suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market.
After four days of talks aimed at restoring security ties as a prelude to renewed peace negotiations, Ross asked Netanyahu to reduce the severe travel and financial restrictions imposed on the Palestinian government and people after the July 30 bombing. Netanyahu declined, saying the Palestinians must first do more to meet Israel’s demands for a crackdown on Islamic militants.
The refusal deprived the American envoy of one of the few tangible achievements he had hoped for in his brief shuttle mission.
But Ross could point to a fragile agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to investigate the bombing jointly, and to report their findings to a three-way panel that will include the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv.
“We have created a mechanism that begins to re-establish the security relationship,” Ross told reporters after a final meeting Wednesday evening with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But he and other American officials cautioned that the renewed security contacts and improved atmosphere were just a start. If a possible visit to the region by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is to proceed, they said, the security cooperation must quickly produce results.
Ross was scheduled to depart early todayfor Washington, where he will brief Albright and President Clinton on his talks. He is expected to continue monitoring events from afar but has no plans to return immediately, officials said.
Even as he prepared to leave, high-level Israeli and Palestinian security officials held the first of what American diplomats hope will be regular meetings to trade information on the Jerusalem bombing case. They will then share their findings with the panel, allowing the U.S. to judge how well they are cooperating.
The sessions are not the first between American intelligence officers and their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. The three parties held at least six sessions between the July 30 bombing and Ross’ arrival in Israel Saturday, as well as a handful of meetings last spring.
“The main thing now is that these meetings will be held on a regular basis and, we hope, be more serious than before,” said a U.S. official involved in the Ross effort. While the earlier sessions were marked by angry political speeches, this week’s have been “professional and serious,” the official said.
The CIA representatives “are there to help in any way they can,” he said. “But obviously, they’re also there so that we can form our own assessment” of whether enough progress has been made for Albright to visit to launch a new U.S. peace initiative.
The U.S. involvement also provides Arafat with an element of political cover for cooperating on security issues at a time of little or no progress in peace talks, a Palestinian political analyst said. “If these are international meetings, it doesn’t look so much like the Palestinians are working for the Israelis,” said Khalil Shikaki, who heads the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, on the West Bank.