Israelis Send Mixed Signals About Coming to Washington
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Israelis Send Mixed Signals About Coming to Washington

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Suspense shrouds the possibility of Israeli- Palestinian peace talks moving to Washington next week.

After two days of inconclusive talks in London, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to come to Washington — on the condition they were able to agree on a plan to move the peace process forward before then.

To make an agreement more palatable to Israel, American officials said they would begin accelerated final-status talks next week in Washington — something Netanyahu has been seeking for months.

Before Netanyahu and his entourage left London on Tuesday, a high-level Israeli officials was optimistic that the talks would proceed.

But by Wednesday, when he returned to Israel, Netanyahu was saying that he might turn down the invitation to go to Washington on May 11 if it were contingent upon Israel’s acceptance of an American proposal.

That proposal, widely reported but never officially expressed by U.S. officials, calls for Israel to redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for specific Palestinian steps to live up to security guarantees in already-signed accords.

“We will not accept American dictates,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio. “As a sovereign state, we have the sole authority to determine our security needs.”

Much of the suspense hinges on whether Netanyahu’s tough comments reflect his actual thinking or are designed to appease his hard-line constituency, even as he has already resolved to pack for Washington.

The Palestinian Authority, which initially demanded a transfer of as much as 30 percent of additional West Bank lands, has accepted in principle the U.S. proposal.

Netanyahu, who held consultations with members of his Inner Security Cabinet on Wednesday about the London talks, said Israel was currently discussing a further redeployment of between 9 percent and 11 percent.

The full Cabinet is expected to decide on the extent of the redeployment Sunday, one day before the Washington talks are slated to convene.

In the Knesset, there was a mixed reaction to Netanyahu’s discussions in London. Opposition members charged Netanyahu with putting Israel on a road to confrontation with the United States.

Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin criticized Netanyahu for rejecting the American proposal in London.

“The prime minister is leading us toward disaster by not accepting the American plan, which is much closer to the Israeli plan than the Palestinian one,” Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo accords told Israel Radio. “I think [Netanyahu] should prefer the security of our country over the security of his coalition.”

In a sign of the resistance Netanyahu faces from his right-wing coalition, 10 legislators from the Land of Israel bloc boycotted Knesset proceedings Wednesday, instead taking an aerial tour of the West Bank to symbolize their opposition to handing over more territory.

Legislator Michael Kleiner, a member of Gesher and the head of the hawkish bloc, threatened that he had enough backing to bring down the Netanyahu government — “and we will if he makes any withdrawal.”

“We believe that if Netanyahu cannot withstand the American pressure he must call new elections,” he added.

But there were also more moderate voices emanating from the governing coalition.

Knesset member Alex Lubotzky of the Third Way Party said Netanyahu had achieved a greater success in London than is generally being attributed to him.

He said the prime minister succeeding in getting the United States to agree that the third further redeployment — slated to take place by the end of the year under the terms of the 1995 Interim Agreement — be subsumed under the final-status talks. He also said Netanyahu gave no commitment regarding a freeze on settlements.

Lubotzky urged the prime minister not to throw away an opportunity for progress by staying away from Washington next week.

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