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Fate of Mideast talks hanging as Netanyahu meets with Cabinet

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In this story:

May 5, 1998
Web posted at: 8:14 p.m. EDT (0014 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to meet with his Cabinet Wednesday for discussions that appear to hold the key to the future of the Mideast peace talks.

Netanyahu, who returned to Israel late Tuesday from London, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, faces a crumbling peace process and a possible rift with the United States if the Cabinet rejects a U.S. peace proposal.

U.S. President Clinton has invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to Washington next week to begin talks on a final peace settlement.

But the talks are conditional on the acceptance by the Israelis of the U.S. plan. The Palestinians have already accepted it; Israel has not.

"If the issues are resolved," Albright said Tuesday, "President Clinton is prepared to invite the parties to launch accelerated final status negotiations."

Albright said the talks would begin Monday, and she made it clear that there would be no compromises.

"The invitation to the Washington meeting is on the basis of those ideas," she said, "and watering them down is not in the works."

Albright made the announcement at a news conference, after two days of meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat ended without a deal.

"We have a strategic opportunity to put the peace process back on track and we cannot afford to lose it," Albright said.

Arafat
Arafat outside 10 Downing Street  

'It's not likely to happen'

Talks on a permanent peace settlement have been a top priority for Netanyahu since he was elected in 1996, vowing to put Israel's security ahead of the previous Labor government's commitments to territorial concessions.

But in Washington, White House officials were skeptical that the Israelis would accept the proposal.

"Based on what we know right now, it is not likely to happen," said one official speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. wants Israel to withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, beyond the 27 percent it already has handed over to the Palestinians. The Israelis have said they are unwilling to release more than 9 percent, although there have been reports that Netanyahu might go as high as 11 percent.

If the Israelis don't agree to the proposal, Albright said, "We will have to reexamine our approach to the peace process." She did not specify what the Clinton administration might do differently, except that it would not abandon its role as mediator.

"We are not going to walk away from a peace process," she said. "It's too important to the United States and to our friends in Israel and the Middle East."

Netanyahu
Netanyahu  

Arafat blames Netanyahu

State Department spokesman James Rubin told CNN, however, that "This phase where we've been actively mediating might well close."

He said that the president and Albright would "reexamine and reevaluate" the situation before making a decision. He also downplayed reports that Albright was frustrated by her inability to make more progress, especially with Netanyahu.

Rubin said that while the negotiations were intense and lasted through the night, Albright "is a trained diplomat. She's very even-tempered. She's doing what she can to get the peace process back on track."

Arafat was somewhat upbeat after the talks, telling reporters: "I cannot say that the London talks failed. I have heard from Madame Albright that there was some progress and that time is needed."

But upon his arrival in Rabat, Morocco, for a meeting with King Hassan II on the outcome of the talks, Arafat said, "Netanyahu has remained in his position which maintains the deadlock. He is not respecting (the Oslo) peace accords."

European diplomats say that during the talks Netanyahu demanded stronger Palestinian moves against Islamic terrorists, and guarantees that the Palestinians would not declare an independent state.

They said he also insisted that there be no reference to a "time-out" on Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, a key U.S. demand.

Netanyahu's coalition threatened

"The difficulty arises from a very simple point," Netanyahu told reporters before returning to Israel. "We cannot compromise on Israeli security. We have not resolved the territorial issue of the further redeployment."

Netanyahu faces threats from far-right Israeli lawmakers who say they will bring down his government if he hands any land to Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The legislators have the power to break up his governing coalition.

"So far, so good," said Michael Kleiner, who heads a group of right-wing legislators. Kleiner praised Netanyahu for standing his ground "even though he was under heavy pressure."

But he added that if Netanyahu agrees even to a 9 percent withdrawal -- let alone the 13 percent pullback the Americans have proposed -- "we will topple him."

With his political survival at stake, there is speculation that Netanyahu would rather defy Washington than his coalition partners. He apparently is taking a gamble that the Clinton administration will not seek an open confrontation with Israel.

At her news conference Tuesday, Albright was careful to interlace her tough remarks with compliments for Netanyahu, saying he was "creative and helpful" and that some progress had been made.

But she dismissed his claim that the American plan endangers Israel. The American ideas "are fair and balanced ... and do not threaten Israeli security," she said.

Correspondent Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.

 

Struggle For Peace
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