In fierce jockeying ahead of a visit by the American secretary of state, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of plotting to destroy the quest for a broader peace in the Middle East.
Arafat said that Netanyahu’s decision to link further progress to a Palestinian crackdown on Islamic militants showed that the Israeli government was not committed to a wider peace.
“This is a plot to stop and destroy the agreements,” he said in a speech in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Arafat’s remarks followed a radio interview in which Ariel Sharon, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said that it would be “impossible” for Israel to make peace with Arafat.
The bitter exchange showed the difficulties that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will face on a trip next month that her spokesman has said will try to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “back from the abyss.”
An aide to Netanyahu said later that Sharon was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the government. But the aide, David Bar-Illan, added, “The only way to rescue the peace process is to crack down on terrorism.”
Albright’s trip, which is to begin on Sept. 9, will be her first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state, and its announcement in Washington on Friday has been followed around the region by posturing on all sides.
Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, has revived a demand that Israel make a further redeployment of its troops from the West Bank by Sept. 7, the date the Palestinians say Israel agreed to as part of an accord signed earlier this year.
But Israeli officials rebuffed that appeal Saturday, arguing they they are not obligated to begin further withdrawals until November, and warning that the collapse in confidence that followed a suicide bombing in Jerusalem a month ago may complicate even that timetable.
Speaking late Friday after the weekly meeting of the Palestinian Cabinet, Erekat said, “Our expectations of Madeleine Albright’s visit are that we exert and we should exert together every possible effort to restore credibility and honesty to the peace process and put the peace process back on track.”
Albright had said that she would travel to the region only if the Palestinians and the Israelis made progress toward restoring security cooperation, and the State Department said Friday that small steps taken by both sides had been sufficient to go ahead with the trip.
But the two sides remain at a dangerous impasse, with Israel refusing to lift harsh sanctions until the Palestinian Authority begins a campaign to arrest and disarm Islamic militants.
Arafat has said he will not heed those demands, and he warned Saturday that Israel’s continued closing of its territory to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip could produce a backlash.
“Our patience has limits,” he said in his address to about 500 people. “Nobody can guarantee what this Palestinian people might do, and all the options are open.”
In anticipation of Albright’s journey, Syria has also offered advice, with the country’s official newspapers warning Saturday that the visit would be “doomed to failure” unless Albright urges Netanyahu to withdraw Israeli forces fully from the Golan Heights as a price for peace.
Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass was quoted as saying that “the world community perceives exactly that Israel alone is the side that blocks the peace process in the region” and that the United States “should pressure Netanyahu to submit to the world community’s will.”
The State Department has said that Albright will travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia on her visit, which is expected to last about a week.
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