Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not attend a Middle East peace summit Monday in Washington, a senior aide said Friday after the Israeli leader and a U.S. envoy failed to agree on American proposals for Israel to make a further West Bank troop withdrawal.
President Clinton had invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to meet with him in Washington.
They were to launch talks on a permanent agreement between the two sides. But the invitation was based on the condition that both sides first accept a U.S. package of ideas to restart their deadlocked negotiations on the next Israeli troop pullback from the West Bank.
Arafat publicly accepted the proposals and the invitation in the leaders’ separate meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in London this week.
But Netanyahu did not agree, insisting that the proposal at the heart of the U.S. package to have the Israelis withdraw from 13% more of the West Bank would endanger Israel’s security. He did agree to consult with his government, and Clinton dispatched peace envoy Dennis B. Ross on an eleventh-hour mission to press the issue.
The prime minister met with Ross for 90 minutes Friday, immediately after Ross’ arrival and just before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown. But they failed to come to terms. Israel has publicly accepted the idea of a 9% pullback; Netanyahu has told U.S. officials privately that he might agree to 11%.
“We are not going to be in Washington on Monday because the invitation is conditional on our reaching an agreement on 13%, and we obviously cannot reach that between now and Sunday night,” said David Bar-Illan, a senior advisor to the prime minister.
But Ross and Netanyahu will meet again tonight after the Sabbath ends, according to Israel Radio.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said the Palestinians had not been informed directly of the Israeli decision to stay home from the summit.
“Mr. Ross will be seeing President Arafat Saturday, and then we will know where things stand,” he told reporters after a Palestinian Cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Palestinians already had said they would not go to Washington unless Israel did so, and unless it was clear that the talks would produce an agreement, not simply another negotiating session.
It remained unclear late Friday whether the decision would provoke a full-fledged confrontation between Israel and the Clinton administration or whether it might still be defused and a compromise found.
In Washington, the administration officials refused to take “no” for an answer, at least for now.
“Dennis [Ross] is out there trying to close the remaining gaps,” a State Department official said. “We hope we can get this done. Ross plans to stay until [Sunday].”
State Department spokesman James Foley, who noted that Ross “is looking at creative ways to make the U.S. ideas acceptable to both sides,” said it would be extremely difficult for the president and Albright to postpone the summit because both have meetings in Europe the rest of next week.
But other officials indicated that Monday is not a deadline for Washington to change its role as Middle East go-between if the summit plans fall through.
“We are looking for a breakthrough, not a breakdown, but there is great urgency to move the process forward,” an official said.
For the last 18 months, U.S. negotiators have played a direct, intensive mediation role between Israel and the Palestinians, acting not only as facilitators of talks between the parties but as players in the process.
In recent days, that role reached its peak.
The Palestinians, who had already accepted the American proposal, found themselves watching from the sidelines in London as U.S. officials tried to persuade Israel to do the same.
But Israel interpreted the U.S. stance as an ultimatum, and Netanyahu said on his return home that he would reject Clinton’s invitation if it meant bowing to U.S. “dictates.”
“There has been tremendous upset here in the last few days because of a chain of events that has completely shaken our belief in American commitments to Israel and to the peace process,” Bar Illan said, raising Israel’s objections to what it sees as American pressure, which “is not the way we are used to communicating with the United States.”
He said the Israelis are unhappy with the Clinton administration’s decision to suggest a scope for the next troop withdrawal, even though a letter signed by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher as part of last year’s Hebron accord specified that Israel alone would determine the extent of the pullbacks.
The U.S. proposals, which have not been made public in all their specifics, call for the Israelis to withdraw from 13% more of the West Bank in three phases, to be matched along the way with increased Palestinian efforts to crack down on Islamic extremist groups and other measures.
Bar-Illan said the Israeli government also noted that Netanyahu was “displeased” by this week’s offhand remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in which she called for a Palestinian state.
The administration has distanced itself from the comments, which aides said were Hillary Clinton’s personal views, not those of the president of the United States.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.