Israel rejected on Sunday a key element of a new U.S. initiative intended to break a stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet ministers unanimously opposed a reported American proposal calling for an Israeli withdrawal from another 13 percent of the West Bank, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said.
“This figure which has been mentioned in the news media, 13 percent, is unacceptable, and … damaging to the security interests of the state of Israel,” Naveh told reporters.
Netanyahu’s adviser David Bar-Illan said Washington had not yet submitted the proposal to Israel, but “because it has been advertised from American sources and has not been denied,” Israel assumes the reports are true.
Netanyahu telephoned President Clinton on Thursday and Saturday and told him the imposition of any percentage would be a breach of a written promise made by the Clinton administration that Israel alone would decide the extent of the withdrawals, Bar-Illan told The Associated Press.
That promise was made in a letter from then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, which accompanied the 1996 agreement on Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank town of Hebron, Bar-Illan said.
Both the Palestinians and Israelis have expressed reservations about the U.S. plan, which calls for Israel to withdraw troops in phases from about 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a Palestinian crackdown on Islamic militants.
U.S. envoy Dennis Ross is to visit Israel and the Palestinian areas later this week to discuss the initiative.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday to discuss the stalled peace talks. Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said he was not sure if the Palestinians would accept the U.S. initiative but acknowledged that it could be “the last chance to put this peace process back on track.”
The Palestinians, who have full or partial control of 27 percent of the West Bank, had hoped to gain control over more.
Netanyahu reportedly wrote Clinton last week that the scope of the withdrawal proposed by the United States would compromise Israel’s security.
He also called Clinton twice requesting that the U.S. administration delay publicizing the initiative, the daily Yediot Ahronot said.
The two leaders agreed that the United States would not publish the initiative before the Ross visit, the newspaper said.
xxxx TERRITORIAL DISPUTE In exchange for West Bank territory, the Palestinians would be required to take specific actions to stop incitement against Israel and crack down on Islamic extremist groups. Israeli officials have said the next troop withdrawal, already months overdue, can amount to no more than 9 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians now have full control over 3 percent of the territory and civil authority over an additional 24 percent.