Clinton, Netanyahu discuss ways to revive ailing peace process

WASHINGTON, April 7 (JTA) — President Clinton has put the brakes, at least temporarily, on speculation that Israel and the Palestinians will move soon to intense Camp David-like talks. “It’s important not to jump the gun” on Camp David-style talks, Clinton told reporters at the beginning of two hours of meetings Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The first thing we have to do is get the process going again. There is a pre-existing process,” he said. “I think it’s important that we not put form over substance here.” The presidential retreat at Camp David was the site for intensive Egyptian-Israel peace negotiations in 1978. Speculation that a similar round of Israeli-Palestinian talks could ensue arose after Netanyahu proposed that the two sides move immediately to permanent-status negotiations and aim to complete them in six months. Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down after Israel began building a Jewish neighborhood, Har Homa, in eastern Jerusalem, and Palestinians responded with violent protests in the West Bank. The Palestinians maintain that they will not return to the talks until Israel stops construction of Har Homa and freezes all settlement activity. Israel is demanding, in the wake of last month’s suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe, a clear commitment by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to end terror. The Clinton administration has voiced interest in Netanyahu’s proposal to complete the permanent-status talks in six months as part of a package being developed to revive the dialogue. However, both Israeli and U.S. officials said Clinton and Netanyahu made no breakthroughs on the quest to get talks at any level back on track. Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he and Clinton discussed “very crude and preliminary ideas” on reinvigorating the peace process. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said after the talks that Clinton “gave the prime minister some serious things to think about.” But Israeli and American officials refused to comment on the specifics of the proposals discussed. “We have a practical problem right now,” Netanyahu said, citing Palestinian violence in the West Bank. “Israel and the United States see eye-to-eye on the need to effectively combat terrorism,” in order for talks to resume, Netanyahu said. Clinton lined up behind Netanyahu on at least this front, saying that no Israeli concessions should be necessary to get Palestinians to renounce violence. “Freedom from terrorism is something which no one should have to purchase,” Clinton said. “It’s a precondition.” As for final-status talks, Netanyahu said they are “one of the options” and that there are “many differences in viewpoints.” Clinton refused to say whether he would call on Netanyahu to suspend construction at Har Homa. After the meeting, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he had informed Clinton that Har Homa construction would continue and that he gave the president no promises regarding new settlement construction or expanding existing ones. Netanyahu did not say whether Clinton asked him to make such a pledge. American officials, for their part, said they would continue to talk to the Palestinians about Netanyahu’s proposal when a delegation visits here later this week. “Now it’s important for us to visit with the Palestinians, and we’ll try to get this thing up and going again,” Clinton said after meeting with Netanyahu. “You know how these things are; I need to say not too much about it and work very hard on it. And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do my best to get it back on track.” Anchoring his official meetings, Netanyahu met with Voices United for Israel, a largely evangelical Christian group, where he issued a strong defense of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Later in the day, Netanyahu told reporters that Israel has an “inherent right” to build at Har Homa. He planned to deliver a similar message to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference Monday night. Meanwhile, he met with Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders to talk about controversial conversion legislation pending in the Knesset.

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