U.S. Envoy Prods Palestinians, Israel to Reach Deal on Hebron

U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week in an effort to get the two sides to reach an accord for the handover of most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule.

Shortly after arriving late Saturday night, Ross met here with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ross later met with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, he held a series of meetings with other officials from both sides, including Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

His visit coincided with weekend unrest in Hebron.

On Sunday, three firebombs were thrown at Jewish targets in the West Bank town. No injuries or damages were reported. Soldiers in riot gear subsequently arrested scores of Palestinians and clamped a curfew on Hebron.

On Saturday, scuffles broke out between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, with each side accusing the other of provoking the violence.

Meanwhile, a homemade bomb exploded Sunday at a hitchhiking post used by Israeli soldiers. The blast, which took place near Bethlehem, caused damage, but no injuries.

Ross brought with him demands for both Israel and the Palestinians.

He called on Arafat to sign the Hebron agreement without further delay, citing recent flexibility from the Israeli side in the negotiations.

He also warned Arafat that additional delays would create tensions between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

With regard to Israel, the American mediator came with a clear warning that expanding Jewish settlements could seriously damage U.S.-Israeli relations.

President Clinton said last week that Netanyahu’s settlement policy was “absolutely” an obstacle to peace. Clinton’s criticism came after Israel decided to reinstate subsidies for Jewish settlers.

Israeli political sources said Netanyahu told Ross that Israel would not accept Palestinian attempts to change understandings already reached regarding security and civilian matters related to the Israeli redeployment in Hebron.

The sources said the Palestinians were trying to delay an agreement so that they could say Netanyahu was not ready to commit to a continuation of the peace process.

The Palestinians, who have blamed Israel for the delay, were encouraged by Clinton’s criticism of Israeli settlements.

But when Clinton administration officials subsequently began prodding the Palestinian side, Arafat complained that the United States was partial toward Israel and called for European mediation in the talks.

“I am ready for any European representative to mediate the talks — anyone but Dennis Ross,” Arafat told a visiting delegation of Israeli opposition members last Friday.

After meeting with Ross, however, Arafat adopted a more conciliatory tone, describing the session as “fruitful and a very important meeting.”

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