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News Analysis: Palestinians on Sidelines of U.s.-israeli Negotiations

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears to hinge on Israeli-American negotiations.

And those negotiations lately seem to have some of the acrimony that for more than a year has characterized talks involving the Israelis and Palestinians.

In one sign of that acrimony, Israeli officials blamed American pressure for the collapse of a meeting on the peace process planned for Monday in Washington.

During a series of meetings last week in London, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued invitations to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend the meeting — but on condition that both sides accepted an American proposal to advance the deadlocked peace process.

With the Palestinians accepting the U.S. proposal, all eyes turned to Israel to see whether it, too, would acquiesce to the American ideas, which call on the Jewish state to redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian steps against terror.

But in the eyes of Israeli officials — and to a majority of the Israeli public, according to a poll — the invitation to Washington read like an ultimatum.

Netanyahu has repeatedly stated in recent days that he would not accept any dictates or conditions relating to the Washington meeting and that Israel alone would determine its security needs.

Netanyahu met with U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross over the weekend in an effort to see if any last-minute language could be worked out to enable the Washington meeting to proceed.

But those discussions — or negotiations — broke down, and Ross called off the summit on Sunday.

Ross did not speak to reporters before leaving for Washington, but other U.S. officials said he would consult with President Clinton and Albright about the possibility of rescheduling the summit later this month.

While the summit has been scrubbed for now, Netanyahu was still planing to come to the United States later this week to address the annual gatherings of the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

He is also scheduled to lead the annual Israel Day parade in New York, slated for May 17.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials, who also met with Ross during the weekend, blamed Netanyahu for not accepting the American plan. They reiterated warnings of the violence that would ensue if the peace process collapsed entirely.

For months, the Palestinians have been calling on the United States to adopt a more active role in the peace process. And now, some Israeli officials are complaining that their American partners have changed from mediators into active negotiators.

Another source of Israeli anger were comments made last week by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton advocating a Palestinian state.

“I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state,” she said via a satellite link-up with Israeli and Arab teen- agers meeting in Switzerland.

U.S. officials were quick to state that her remarks did not reflect a change in the Clinton administration’s policy that statehood is a matter to be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians.

But given her timing, and the fact that she spoke at some length on the subject, some observers felt that her comments were not accidental.

Netanyahu was reportedly incensed by the first lady’s remarks and protested them during a weekend meeting with Ross.

Netanyahu also reportedly complained during the meeting that the United States was portraying him as an obstacle to peace.

“It’s impossible for you to invite me to Washington under such conditions. That’s public humiliation,” the premier told Ross, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, which added that Netanyahu pounded his desk during the conversation.

Along with the first lady’s comments on Palestinian statehood, another development was likely to give some Israeli officials pause: President Clinton last week addressed a Washington gathering of the Arab American Institute, where he became the first sitting president to address an Arab American group.

Was this a signal sent from Washington in the face of what it views as Israeli intransigence?

If so, then Netanyahu and others in his government may have to start contemplating the price of a complete breakdown in negotiations with the United States.

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