Despite a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Israeli troop withdrawal from the city of Hebron, President Clinton on Monday escalated the rhetoric of the White House dialogue with Israel, saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undercutting the peace process by subsidizing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The president said at a news conference in Washington that Netanyahu’s decision, announced last week, to provide tax breaks and other economic subsidies to encourage Jews to move into the disputed West Bank is an obstacle to peace because it is designed to preempt negotiations.
The comments came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators went back to the bargaining table in Jerusalem, easing a crisis that began Wednesday when Arab gunmen ambushed an Israeli family, prompting Netanyahu to step up government efforts to expand Jewish settlements.
All involved in the elusive search for a Hebron agreement cautioned against reading too much into the resumption of talks or the “friendly” telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that prompted it.
“We hope we can put the peace process back on track,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said before meeting with his Israeli counterpart, lawyer Yitzhak Molcho. “But it’s not words we need at this point from the Israelis but deeds, on the ground.”
Clinton hailed the resumption of the talks on Hebron, the only Palestinian city still under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. But he also indicated a growing impatience with the seeming inability of the Israelis and Palestinians to finish up an agreement that he said should have been concluded long ago.
“I’m pleased that the prime minister and Chairman Arafat talked,” Clinton said. “That’s a good thing. Better than not talking. But sooner or later they have to do something. And they’ve had an agreement within grasp--with very little difference--on Hebron for some time now. The time has come to make that agreement.”
Although Clinton said he does not want to do anything that might upset the Hebron talks, he said Netanyahu’s policy on settlements seems to violate the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords, which called for later negotiations over the status of Israeli settlements and other “final status” agreements.
He said that, by offering new subsidies to Jewish settlers, Netanyahu appears to be “preempting the outcome of something they’ve already agreed should be part of the final negotiations.”
Asked if settlements are an obstacle to peace, Clinton said: “Absolutely.” It was the first time that Clinton had endorsed the “obstacle to peace” rhetoric that had been a feature of the Middle East diplomacy of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
The Israeli leader defended the government decision in an appearance Monday before a committee of the Israeli parliament. He said it is appropriate to restore subsidies halted in 1992 by the Labor government of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated last year.
Netanyahu, who easily survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote on the settlement issue Monday, also said that no new settlements will be built until negotiations determine which of the contested areas would remain under Israeli control in a permanent peace accord.
The question of Jewish settlements in the territories that Israel occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War remains one of the most sensitive in the peace discussions. Palestinians view the settlements as a threat to their dream of establishing an independent state in the West Bank.
The latest negotiations followed a weekend of angry accusations between the two sides. Arafat described the settlement incentives as a “time bomb” threatening the peace process, and Netanyahu accused Palestinian leaders of plotting a “wave of violence” against Israel.
But Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu sent two emissaries, Molcho and Netanyahu advisor Danny Naveh, to meet with Arafat at his Gaza City headquarters. Soon after, Arafat telephoned Netanyahu, apparently at the urging of the two Israelis.
Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan described the 10-minute phone call between Arafat and the Israeli leader as “positive” and “friendly,” noting that Arafat had for the first time condemned the fatal shooting of the settlers and said he will try to prevent such attacks.
Netanyahu, in turn, expressed sorrow over the death of a Palestinian worker shot by an Israeli who said he thought the man was trying to break into his house.
Israeli troops were scheduled to withdraw from most of Hebron in March under a timetable set by the interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Given the deep distrust that has built up during the months of start-and-stall negotiations, no one Monday would predict an early resolution of the dispute.
Trounson reported from Jerusalem and Kempster from Washington.