US pins high hopes on revival of talks between Netanyahu, Arafat


President Clinton will urge the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach agreement in the Middle East summit talks which begin outside Washington today.

An agreement on a phased Israeli withdrawal from 13 per cent of the occupied West Bank would open the way to negotiations on the "final status" objectives including Palestinian statehood.

Mr Clinton will meet the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, at the White House this morning before they travel to the secluded Wye Plantation conference centre on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay about 60 miles from the capital. The State Department has announced a media black-out on the talks until Sunday.

The President has cancelled weekend engagements to be ready to travel by helicopter to the conference site if necessary. The US will be represented at the talks by the Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and her special assistant for the Middle East, Mr Dennis Ross.

Success in these talks would be a further boost for a President under an impeachment inquiry cloud following the Kosovo settlement with the Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, negotiated by the US emissary, Mr Richard Holbrooke.

This week is also expected to see a budget agreement between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill which will also be seen as a personal triumph for Mr Clinton who has been insisting on increased education spending and $18 billion in extra funding for the International Monetary Fund.

While the prospects for an interim agreement look good, US officials are warning that it is not yet a done deal. There was dismay here on Tuesday when Mr Netanyahu's office warned that "there is no chance at this stage of signing an agreement" following an attack on two Israelis near Jerusalem in which one died.

But yesterday in Amman, Mr Netanyahu sounded a more optimistic note when he said that he would go "a very long way" towards negotiating an agreement on the Israeli troop withdrawal.

The appointment of the hardline Mr Ariel Sharon as Foreign Minister and a leading negotiator on the Israeli team is seen as strengthening Mr Netanyahu's hand in the negotiations. But it may also make for a colder atmosphere as Gen Sharon has said he will not shake hands with Mr Arafat.

The Palestinian leader flew to the US yesterday after a meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, to talk with King Hussein of Jordan who is receiving treatment for cancer in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

The broad outlines of the withdrawal agreement have already been drawn up in earlier talks last month between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and Ms Albright. The Israelis will withdraw in phases from a further 13 per cent of the occupied West Bank in return for security guarantees. Under a US compromise plan, 3 per cent of the territory to be returned will be made into a nature reserve where Palestinians will not be allowed to live.

In return the Palestinians will be expected to dismantle terrorist cells, extradite certain prisoners, confiscate excess guns and stop "incitement" through anti-Israeli speeches and propaganda.

Other issues to be decided include the opening of an international airport and an industrial park in Gaza.

An agreement on all these matters will open the way to the start of negotiations on the "final status" laid down in the 1993 Oslo Accords which are supposed to be completed by next May.