Revival of the peace process has been made uncertain as Israeli and Arab leaders have accused each other of placing obstacles in the way of continuing negotiations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday charged Arab leaders of trying to set preconditions for peace negotiations, harming chances for moving the process forward.
He was reacting to Sunday’s closing statement of an Arab summit in Cairo that warned Israel that further peace efforts would be jeopardized if the Netanyahu government deviates from the land-for-peace principle which has been the basis of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations during the past several years.
The threats emanating from Cairo and Israel’s terse response came as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was scheduled to visit the region this week to assess the latest developments in the peace process. He was expected to visit Israel on Tuesday, and then Egypt on Wednesday.
“To achieve peace, there must be no preconditions,” Netanyahu told reporters Sunday night. “We won’t dictate to them, and they should not dictate to us.
“Any attempts to set preconditions in negotiations would endanger Israel’s security. We must get rid to preconditions, so Israel and the Arab states can move forward with the peace that is the hope of all of us.”
Earlier in the day, speaking in Kiryat Gat at the opening of the annual assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Netanyahu said “the most fundamental requirement” of the peace process is that “it cannot be made hostage” to any preconditions.
Last month’s election of Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, prompted Arab leaders to convene their first summit in six years to coordinate a united stand on the peace process with Israel.
While the summit brought together 21 Arab leaders who themselves have been divided on peace with Israel, among other regional issues, they joined in the closing statement at the end of the weekend meeting, warning Israel not to deviate from the land-for-peace principle that was the basis for the 1991 peace conference in Madrid.
Doing so, the statement said, would “lead to setbacks to the peace process, with all that implies in the way of dangers and repercussions which would take the region back to a cycle of tension.”
The statement warned that a hard-line approach by the new Israeli government would be countered by a slowdown in the normalization of ties with Arab countries.
“The Arab states would be forced to reconsider the steps taken towards Israel in the framework of the peace process [and] the government of Israel alone would bear full responsibility.”
The summit called on Israel to implement all elements of the peace agreement and to enable the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
It also demanded an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, including a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, boundaries on the Golan Heights, the area Israel captured from Syria during the Six-Day War.
The guidelines of the new Likud-led government explicitly oppose a Palestinian state and emphasize the national importance of the Golan Heights for Israel. At the same time, they call for negotiations with Syria with no set conditions.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had negotiated hard with some participants, including Syrian leader Hafez Assad, to tone down the final wording of the draft.
Mubarak said in a CNN interview that despite Netanyahu’s public statements, he could prove to be more flexible in negotiations.
“It’s too early to pass judgment now,” he said. “I will until I meet with the Israeli leader, and hear his views.”
Ahead of the Arab summit, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy sounded a conciliatory note, hinting in a weekend television interview that Israel could show some flexibility on the Golan.
His comments immediately drew a sharp response from leaders of the Golan residents as well as The Third Way party, one of the government’s coalition partners, which was elected on a platform opposing an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Sunday also issued a statement distancing the prime minister from Levy’s remarks.
“Only statements made by the prime minister reflect Israeli policy on these political issues,” spokesman Michael Stoltz reportedly said.
Levy himself later called the closing statement of the Arab summit “contradictory to the atmosphere necessary for continuing peace.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to travel next month to Washington for talks with President Clinton. He is also due to visit Jordan and Egypt in the coming weeks.