Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rebuffed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s appeal to ease economic restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza to encourage the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorism.
“As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t make a vigorous effort to fight terrorism and dismantle their infrastructure, we will not go very far,” Netanyahu told a press conference with Albright at his side following almost two hours of meetings.
Albright agreed with Netanyahu that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat must do far more to prevent militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad from using Palestinian territory to stage attacks on Israel. But she said Israel also needs to do more to give the Palestinians a real stake in the peace process.
After asserting that security cooperation must be improved, Albright said, “Clearly Israel also has responsibility to shape an environment that allows that (peace) process to succeed.” She said Israel must “refrain from actions that erode trust.”
A senior U.S. official said the exchanges at the press conference accurately reflected the discussions that Albright, Netanyahu and their top aides had in private. But it is unusual for two such dignitaries to disagree so publicly, regardless of how much they may differ in private meetings.
The official said Netanyahu did not offer any concession that Albright could take to Arafat when she meets the Palestinian leader Thursday in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
It is clear that Albright’s meeting with Arafat will be even more tense than her talks with Netanyahu. Albright said the Palestinians, despite the arrest of nearly 200 suspected members of extremist Islamic groups early Wednesday, have not done enough to stop attacks on Israelis such as two deadly suicide bombings of Jerusalem markets during the past six weeks.
About 85 remained jailed Wednesday evening, according to Palestinian security and political officials.
Netanyahu scornfully said the arrests were “sardines” that left the “sharks” untouched. The senior U.S. official said Albright urged Netanyahu to release Palestinian tax money that Israel impounded after the July 30 bombing of a Jerusalem produce market and to end the closure of Gaza and the West Bank which makes it impossible for Palestinians to reach jobs in Israel and has severely damaged the Palestinian economy. She said these steps should be taken “unilaterally” by Israel to improve the political climate.
Albright also called on both Israel and the Palestinians to meet their remaining obligations under the 1993 peace agreement negotiated in Oslo, Norway and signed on the White House lawn. Those accords require the Palestinians to crack down on terrorists and require Israel to transfer additional territory to Palestinian control, allow the Palestinians to open an airport and a seaport and take other steps.
The senior U.S. official said Albright told Netanyahu that Israel must ease its hardline approach if it hopes to make real progress against terrorism.
“The secretary did make clear there was a limit to what one could reasonably expect Arafat to do in the absence of some encouragement,” the official said.
Marwan Kanafani, a Palestinian legislator and close adviser to Arafat, said, “We are very disturbed that the secretary embraced completely the Israeli position on the security issue. She should have waited to listen to our point of view, that security is just one aspect of the (peace) agreements.”
But Kanafani said the Palestinians “did not fail to notice” that Albright also touched on the need for implementation of the existing accords between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said tops the list of concerns Arafat plans to raise with Albright.
Earlier in the day, Israeli war hero Ezer Weizman, who now holds the largely ceremonial post of president, told Albright that she and other U.S. officials may soon have to “knock heads” to force Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks, a U.S. official said. The official said Weisman did not say whose heads should be knocked, but he has long been a political opponent of Netanyahu.