In their first working session aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed Tuesday to persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to accept a delay in Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
Barak, whose inaugural three weeks in office have been marked by a high-profile blitz in global diplomacy, met with Arafat for slightly more than two hours at a military border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
It was their third encounter in 16 days but the first one to tackle substantive details. And it was clearly tough going.
Barak had hoped to attain Arafat's acquiescence in a plan to combine last fall's U.S.-brokered Wye Plantation agreement with more complicated negotiations over a broader, final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He gave Arafat two weeks to answer, during which time a newly formed Palestinian committee will debate Israel's proposal. But Arafat remained adamant Tuesday night.
Land transfers and other elements of the Wye accord, including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, must be carried out immediately and "accurately," Arafat told a news conference after the summit at the Erez checkpoint.
Barak, standing by Arafat at the same news conference, indicated that if the Palestinians insist, he will go ahead with Wye, which his predecessor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, froze two months after signing it in October at an elaborate Washington ceremony with President Clinton presiding. The accord calls for Israel to withdraw from 13% of the West Bank in exchange for a range of antiterrorism security measures by the Palestinians.
"I say once again we are committed to Wye, and we will implement Wye," Barak said.
The Israelis held out hope, nevertheless, that Arafat may yet change his mind--even as some Palestinian officials began to speak of a crisis.
Barak was said to be offering incentives to Arafat to persuade him to give up the second of two scheduled land transfers. The sweeteners reportedly include release of certain Palestinian prisoners who committed murder and a different configuration of land that would turn the Palestinian holdings from a hodgepodge to a more coherent bloc of territory.
The Israelis are particularly concerned that the pending West Bank withdrawals, as currently mapped out, will isolate at least 15 Jewish settlements, leaving them exposed to possible Palestinian attacks and in need of extra Israeli army protection.
Barak told members of his Labor Party this week that the current Wye map would create an "explosive situation" that would be detrimental to both Israelis and the Palestinians. This too is the argument he was to make to Arafat.
Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday briefed a parliament committee on the likely increase in Palestinian terrorism as the peace process appears to be making progress. He noted the appearance last week of threatening fliers purportedly from a wing of the Islamic militant organization Hamas.
Barak is willing to go ahead with a partial withdrawal, perhaps as much as 5% of the West Bank, but then wants to move directly to the so-called final-status negotiations that are meant to resolve the really tough issues, such as who controls Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. He believes this strategy would be less painful for Israelis than to relinquish territory bit by bit.
But Arafat is under pressure to produce tangible results in a peace negotiation that not everyone in his constituency supports. Only by delivering on Wye, he argues, will Israel be able to restore the trust eroded during the three-year Netanyahu government. Netanyahu froze Wye after ceding about 2% of the West Bank then accusing the Palestinians of failing to crack down on terrorists.
Arafat said he addressed Barak "very frankly" and demanded an end to new Jewish settlements--illegal construction of new outposts has continued apace in the West Bank--before the final-status talks can begin. He also reiterated his oath of "zero tolerance" for terrorism and pledged to exert the "maximum effort" to stop anti-Israeli violence.
The Palestinians consider Wye to be important because they want to go into the final-status negotiations with as much territory as possible. Full implementation of Wye will give the Palestinians control of 40% of the West Bank, up from 27% now.
Arafat advisor Nabil Shaath, ahead of Tuesday's meeting, expressed the frustration felt by many Palestinians, charging that Barak was "taking away our cards before we sit down to play poker."
"Trust can only come in words that are followed by deeds," Shaath said.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of Tuesday's meeting, however, there remained a climate more upbeat than under Netanyahu's regime.
"There is room for optimism because it was agreed to proceed," Barak's chief security advisor, Danny Yatom, said after Tuesday's meeting. "Whether the chairman [Arafat] ultimately agrees to the prime minister's proposals or not, there will be progress. The prime minister said clearly and explicitly that we are committed to fulfilling the Wye agreement so that, either way, there will be progress."
Barak has also pledged to reactivate peace talks soon with Syria and Lebanon--Israel's last active battlefront.
On Tuesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, who assumed the throne in February after the death of his father, veteran Middle East peace proponent King Hussein, was reported to have ferried messages between Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad. Abdullah was said to be attempting to draw up terms on which Syria and Israel can reopen negotiations that broke down more than three years ago.