WASHINGTON (Oct. 2)
It’s back to the Middle East. Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators are shifting their talks back to the region after a two-day emergency summit here failed to gain momentum in a teetering peace process.
And while the sides are at least now talking, the prospects for the next round of meetings, scheduled for Sunday, appeared dim as the tension in the territories intensified.
President Clinton expressed disappointment that the negotiators were not able to reach any formal agreement in Washington.
“We have not made as much progress as I had hoped,” Clinton told reporters as he pleaded for calm in the Middle East.
“Please, please, give us a chance to make this work,” Clinton said as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat sat stone-faced and grim-looking behind the president in the East Room of the White House.
The principals did not address the media, leaving Clinton to field questions alone.
At one point, he offered them the floor as reporters peppered them with questions, but the Israeli premier and Palestinian leader refused to speak.
Arafat and Netanyahu neither shook hands nor exchanged glances during the half- hour session with reporters. After the session, however, the two leaders left together and shook hands.
But in a separate briefing with reporters later on, Netanyahu said the meetings were a victory because the summit served to “cement the principle that the path to peace is through negotiations, not through violence.”
“Peace can progress as long as security holds,” the Israeli premier said.
Arafat had also scheduled a separate news conference, but canceled it at the last minute.
Clinton had called the summit to try to salvage the war-ravaged peace process, after last week’s explosion of violence.
Rioting by Palestinians — touched off when Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel alongside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City – - quickly escalated out of control, with Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers exchanging gunfire.
By the end of the week, 57 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.
In the territories, a tense quiet reined — one that Palestinian officials warned could erupt into violence should the outcome of the Washington summit disappoint residents.
In the West Bank on Wednesday, there were reports of residents stockpiling food and sandbagging homes in preparation for a possible resumption of hostilities.
Near the town of Halhoul, a 17-year-old Palestinian reportedly was shot dead by Israeli army fire after he apparently threw a firebomb and stones at Israeli cars. Four other Palestinians were wounded in the incident.
In Bethlehem, stones were thrown at Israeli soldiers near Rachel’s Tomb. Palestinian police dispersed the demonstrators.
“There has been an order from the high commander not to protest or engage in any demonstrations or other activities,” the mayor of Kalkilya told Israel Radio. “But people are frustrated.”
In Gaza, Palestinian police were on alert for possible resumptions of violence.
Palestinians observed a five-minute symbolic strike in solidarity with Arafat and to protest Israel’s continued closure of the territories.
Israeli tanks, meanwhile, were moved into positions around Jewish settlements and near Palestinian population centers in the territories.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said the stepped-up Israeli presence was only a measure of preparedness.
“We are not going to war,” he said during a visit to Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
The meetings in Washington, which began Tuesday, continued virtually non-stop for two days at all levels. Jordan’s King Hussein also participated in the summit.
Despite concerns that Netanyahu and Arafat would not meet face-to-face, they did come together.
The Americans had sought an agreement that included an Israeli commitment to redeploy from Hebron on a specific date in exchange for a Palestinian pledge to renounce violence as a means to attain diplomatic gains.
Both sides, however, refused to sign on.
Trying to put a somewhat positive spin on the summit, Clinton said both Arafat and Netanyahu, by coming to Washington, had recommitted themselves to a “non- violent future” and showed that there is “no alternative to the path of peace.”
The talks Sunday, scheduled to take place at the Erez Crossing near the Gaza Strip, will not include the region’s leaders. Instead, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross will meet with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The top item on the agenda will be Hebron, Clinton said.
Netanyahu told reporters that he “made it very clear that we are committed to a redeployment in Hebron. We are not reluctant to do it.”
Netanyahu has said he would uphold the agreement to redeploy Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town, but wants to negotiate modifications to take into account the security needs of Hebron’s Jewish settlers.
He said that when the talks resume Sunday, they will be continuous and will focus simultaneously on Hebron and security issues.
He said he rejected calls to set a date for redeployment in Hebron because that is “a certain way to obstruct the negotiations.”
When asked whether the peace process is back to square one, Clinton said there is “a clear commitment not to renegotiate agreements by which both sides are bound.”