Netanyahu sends mixed signals about agreement


Israeli hardliners fear the worst. Right-wing demonstrators, convinced that this week's Middle East summit in Maryland will conclude with a deal on a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, gathered outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem last night, brandishing placards warning Mr Benjamin Netanyahu that they would work to bring him down if he signed any such agreement.

"Don't abandon the territory of Israel," pleaded one. "It's not peace; it's piece by piece," asserted another.

But Mr Netanyahu himself is sending mixed signals. On Tuesday his office reacted to the killing of an Israeli man outside Jerusalem, apparently by Palestinian gunmen, with a statement that flatly ruled out a deal "at this stage".

But yesterday, in Amman for talks with Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan, the Prime Minister said: "Every person in the Israeli government and in the Israeli people hopes this [summit] will succeed."

And, in television interviews here last night, Mr Netanyahu was even looking ahead to the consequences of that success for his shaky coalition. If his hardline critics in government, he warned, were to bring him down "in a moment of blindness", they would risk letting the left-wing Labour party back into power, with what he said would be grave consequences.

He would not be drawn on whether he anticipated signing the deal by Monday, the scheduled end of the summit, but said he felt a "great sense of responsibility" to advance towards peace.

Aides of President Clinton, who would dearly appreciate the foreign policy plaudits for brokering a deal, have made clear just how much importance he is attaching to the summit. Mr Clinton is said to have left his schedule clear from today's opening ceremony until Sunday, to be on hand to help solve issues in dispute, to do anything he can to ensure that festive Monday ceremony.

One way to guarantee signing something, of course, would be to draft a deal that provides for Israel to withdraw from 13 per cent of the West Bank, as the Americans have long been urging, on condition that the Palestinians carry out the various security measures which Israel has been demanding. In other words, that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Yasser Arafat sign what would amount to a declaration of intentions, rather than a firm agreement with a binding timetable.

Unless the deal is phrased in conditional or vague language, indeed, it is hard to see how even Mr Clinton's personal involvement can tackle some of the key differences. How, for instance, to reconcile Israel's demand for the cancellation of the PLO's guiding charter, with Mr Arafat's response that the charter has already been amended to the satisfaction of the previous Israeli government?

How to meet Israel's demand for the extradition from Palestinian territory of militants suspected of attacks on Israel, with the Palestinians' insistence that the Oslo accords do not commit them to such extraditions? How to reach a deal on the disarming of militants, when Israel is highly unlikely to consider the Palestinians' reciprocal demand for the confiscation of arms from settler extremists?

With these and numerous other issues still unresolved, Mr Natan Sharansky, the Minister of Trade who has become a key ally of Mr Netanyahu, was yesterday urging - him to postpone the summit altogether; a thoroughly unrealistic demand, but one that underlines the confusion, even among his innermost circle, over Mr Netanyahu's intentions.

Doubtless Gen Ariel Sharon, one of the leading hardliners in the Netanyahu cabinet, would have been echoing that call for postponement, had he not been newly appointed as Foreign Minister. In that position, he will play a key role at the summit.

Twenty years ago, in a phone call from Israel to the Camp David summit that produced Israel's peace accords with Egypt, Gen Sharon encouraged a reluctant prime minister, Mr Menachem Begin, to cede the entire Sinai area in exchange for the treaty. Much may depend on whether Gen Sharon plays peacemaker or hardliner this time.

Israeli soldiers serving in flash-point zones are to be taught that sticks and stones may break their bones but names will never hurt them.

The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that psychologists would help run two-day courses to teach troops how to deal with abuse from Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.