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Clinton phones Netanyahu, Arafat to press redeployment

WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 (JTA) – In a sign that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may move off of life support, President Clinton has personally urged the sides to conclude an agreement on an Israeli redeployment from the West Bank. Clinton called both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat from Moscow Wednesday to express his disappointment that no agreement has been reached. The president made the calls after completing his summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Netanyahu told Israel Television that Clinton said “he intends to begin aiding the political process with the Palestinians” after he returns from Russia. According to Netanyahu, Clinton did not pressure Israel during their “extensive” conversation. “He said he intends to work together with me to reach an agreement that answers the needs of both sides,” the Israeli premier said. Netanyahu spoke to Clinton for about 25 minutes. The Arafat call lasted more than 15 minutes. A senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with the president that the continuing stalemate in the peace process is “very frustrating.” “We need to get closure,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re as close to agreement as they’ve ever been,” the official said. “The president continued to press both the chairman and the prime minister to move the peace process forward.” If Clinton becomes involved in the talks, as Netanyahu said, it would mark a shift in U.S. policy. In recent months, the United States has told the Israelis and Palestinians that they must negotiate directly to resolve their differences. In fact, the State Department has rejected numerous requests from both sides to intervene. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been deadlocked for 18 months. In an attempt to head off expected reports that Clinton criticized the Israeli leader, Netanyahu spokesman Avi Bushinsky said in a statement that Clinton’s expression of disappointment “does not imply the president was criticizing the prime minister or putting the blame on Israel. The prime minister was very satisfied with the conversation.” Arafat recently sent Netanyahu a letter in which he agreed to an Israeli plan that a portion of the lands included in a U.S.-sponsored proposal for a 13 percent redeployment in the West Bank be considered a nature preserve. This would prevent the Palestinians from launching any construction projects in the area, which comprises some 3 percent of the proposed pullback. But in his letter, Arafat rejected most of the Israeli conditions for bringing the talks to a successful conclusion. A major stumbling block is who will have responsibility for security in the preserve. Israel is demanding total security control. Arafat wants to share in these responsibilities. On Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel and the Palestinians had been “very close” to completing negotiations on the redeployment, but that the Palestinians had pulled back. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied Netanyahu’s claim. Speaking in South Africa on Wednesday at the summit of the 113-nation Non-Aligned Movement, Arafat blamed Israel for the impasse in the negotiations. “This Israeli government is determined to destroy the peace process, to create an atmosphere of terror, anarchy and instability in the region and to violate international legitimacy,” he said. Meanwhile, Clinton met in Moscow with a delegation of Jewish leaders assembled for the opening of a Russian synagogue dedicated to victims of World War II. It was unclear whether Clinton addressed the peace process in the meeting. Also in Moscow, the U.S. and Russian leaders signed an agreement to create seven working groups on export controls in an effort “to halt the spread of dangerous weapons,” Clinton said. Both the United States and Russia have launched a crackdown on companies that sell missile technology to Iran. Clinton hailed Russia for taking “important steps” to tighten export controls on missiles and weapons of mass destruction and penalize offenders. (JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)