Clinton intervenes at summit over Israeli security concerns

 

President Clinton intervened personally for the third time in four days to try and break the deadlock in the Middle East summit as Israeli security concerns proved the major obstacle. But the talks have had to be extended to an unscheduled fifth day. A successful outcome would be a considerable coup for Mr Clinton, now facing an impeachment process and the release today of potentially embarrassing material from the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

The President was accompanied by the Vice President, Mr Al Gore when he helicoptered from the White House yesterday to join the stalled talks at the secluded Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland. But hopes that a settlement would be reached yesterday were dashed when the State Department spokesman, Mr James Rubin, announced last night that they were being extended.

The Israeli team was strengthened yesterday when the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, was joined by the hardline Foreign Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, and Defence Minister, Mr Yitzhak Mordechai, at a point which was described as "very difficult and complicated."

But Mr Mordechai, when asked by reporters if he was optimistic, replied "Yes, I am."

The aim of the negotiations, which have been stalled for 17 months, is an Israeli handover of a further 13 per cent of occupied territory on the West Bank in exchange for security guarantees by the Palestinians. But the Palestinians were said to be refusing to accept the demand for the surrender of 30 men whom the Israelis accuse of terrorist attacks.

The Israeli side was working for a partial agreement which would omit any reference to the controversial Jewish settlements and to the handover of most of the 3,500 Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian officials said an incomplete agreement was unacceptable.

The US team which included the Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, the National Security adviser, Mr Sandy Berger, and the CIA director, Mr George Tenet, were reported to have drafted compromise proposals on security and other issues which were submitted to the Israelis after acceptance by the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat.

Under the compromise, the Palestinians themselves would arrest and imprison suspected terrorists with the CIA acting as judge as to whether the Israeli accusations against certain militants were justified.

There was also disagreement over the extent of a third Israeli withdrawal under the 1993 Oslo agreements which the Palestinians want to be a substantial one before entering into the final phase negotiations over the future status of the Palestinian territory and Jerusalem.

Israeli Army radio reported at the weekend that President Clinton was so anxious to secure a settlement that he was threatening Israel that the US would recognise an independent Palestinian state next year if there was no agreement. Israeli sources later denied this and Mr Rubin said he found such a report difficult to imagine. The Israeli newspaper, Maariv reported that Mr Clinton at one stage told the two sides: "I have been working on this deal for 17 months and I'm not prepared to defer it any longer."

Mr Netanyahu was reported to have quarrelled with the Palestinian negotiator, Mr Saeb Erekat, over the Israelis' use of biblical terms, "Judea and Samaria", to describe the West Bank. Mr Erekat pointed out that the peace agreements refer to the area as the West Bank. Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu were said to have twice engaged in shouting matches.