Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat sent a senior official here Thursday to complain that U.S. mediators are trying to "micro-manage" the Middle East peace talks and are pressing the Palestinians to retreat from accords signed in 1995.
The visit by Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, the Palestinian Authority's minister of higher education, underlined the Clinton administration's difficulty in reviving the stalled peace process.
Ashrawi said she plans to remain in Washington through the weekend to urge the administration to stop trying to broker a compromise over redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron.
She argued that the United States should instead insist that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government comply with the peace pact signed by the previous Israeli government.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns dismissed Ashrawi's comments as "extraordinarily unwise."
But the exchange emphasized the precarious U.S. role in the deadlocked Hebron talks, which both sides consider the key to future peace negotiations.
Although one senior U.S. official recently conceded that the biggest problem in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians "is that the level of trust is so low," the administration has not changed its approach since June, when Netanyahu took power. His government replaced that of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, which had established a rapport with the Palestinians.
Under the Israeli-Palestinian framework, signed on the White House lawn in September 1995, Israeli troops were supposed to have withdrawn last March from most of Hebron, the only predominately Palestinian West Bank city still occupied by Israel. Although both sides say they are ready to complete the redeployment, they have reached an impasse on related issues, especially the schedule for the final withdrawal of Israeli forces from most of the West Bank.
The 1995 pact specified that the withdrawal should be completed by September. U.S. officials here said Thursday that Israel has proposed postponement to the end of 1999, while the Palestinians have agreed only to allow the schedule to slip until the end of this year. In a split-the-difference compromise, U.S. mediator Dennis Ross has suggested the end of 1998.
"The mediator should not try to compromise an agreement that was already signed and witnessed," Ashrawi told a meeting here sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
To suggestions that the Palestinians were prolonging the occupation of Hebron by balking at Israeli terms for redeployment, Ashrawi said: "If the Israelis want to behave like occupiers, let them do it without our blessing. We will not sign away our rights."
She said Ross has urged the Palestinians to recognize that pressures on Netanyahu from nationalistic members of his Cabinet make it difficult for him to make concessions. In response, she said the Israeli prime minister faces "internal pressures, but he has to deal with them. We should not be asked to pay the price."
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have complained that the other side often tries to reopen issues supposedly settled. And both sides have often accused the United States of favoring the other.
But Ashrawi's complaint was not just the usual charge of bias. She argued that U.S. officials are failing to deal with core issues because they are too tied up in minutiae. She said, for instance, that Ross is trying to mediate matters as mundane as placement of parking lots near the Hebron cave that both Jews and Muslims revere as the burial place of Abraham.
U.S. officials insisted that the administration will keep to its course. "I don't believe you are going to see a fundamental transformation in the way we deal with Israel," a senior official said.