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U.S. Presses Peace Talks Amid Looming Iraqi Conflict

February 2, 1998
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With a possible U.S. military confrontation with Iraq looming, the top American foreign policy official is pressing for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Madeleine Albright, the U.S. secretary of state, said she expected Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the “hard decisions” needed to move the process forward.

“We have been stalled at this point in the peace process negotiating the same issues for a long time, frankly for too long,” Albright said Sunday at a Jerusalem news conference. “There is far too much at stake for this to go on. It is no longer enough to simply talk about wanting peace, it is time to make the difficult decisions and exercise the leadership necessary to achieve it.”

Albright said her separate talks over the weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat achieved “minimal” progress. But she announced that both sides had agreed to send emissaries to Washington late next week for follow-up discussions.

Albright’s brief stopover in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas came amid talks in Europe and the Middle East on the mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf over U.N. weapons inspections of Iraq sites. Albright was clear in stressing that the United States differentiates between whatever criticism it may have of Israel regarding the peace process and any possible threats the Jewish state may face if the Iraqi crisis escalates.

“Of course there may be differences between us in how to pursue Middle East peace. But let me say directly to the Israeli people — nothing will shake the iron-clad commitment of the U.S. when it comes to the security of Israel.”

At the news conference, Albright would not respond to a question about whether the United States had asked Israel to refrain from responding to an Iraq attack, but she indicated that Washington would not oppose Israeli military action.

“It is obviously always up to each country to determine its own way of defending itself,” Albright said.

Albright said the United States was ready to use “substantial” force if diplomatic efforts to resolve the U.N. weapons inspection crisis in Iraq failed.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu stressed that Israel alone would decide how to defend itself.

“We will respond as needed, to protect Israel and fortify its national security,” he said. “We are the only ones making the decision.”

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel, under pressure from the Bush administration, refrained from responding to Iraqi Scud missile attacks.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday that the United States has agreed in principle to send Israel vaccines against biological agents that Iraq is believed to possess. The report comes as thousands of Israelis are picking up new gas masks daily to defend themselves against possible Iraqi gas attacks in the event of war in the Persian Gulf.

On the peace process, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Albright’s talks, her second in the region since becoming secretary of state, did little to jar the impasse.

Israeli-Palestinian talks have been deadlocked for nearly a year, with the latest obstacles being the scope of the next Israeli troop redeployment from the West Bank and Israeli demands for Palestinian action to meet its commitments from previously signed agreements.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that no decision had been made yet on the scope of the redeployment. Israel has conditioned implementation of the pullback on Palestinians’ compliance with their commitments, among them nullification of clauses in the Palestinian covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.

Netanyahu said reports that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, in a meeting Saturday night, had approved a letter Arafat gave President Clinton last week on nullification of the covenant were a “step in the right direction.” However, he stood firm on Israel’s belief that only the Palestine National Council is authorized to complete revision of the charter, voted on nearly two years ago.

Conflicting reports emerged from the PLO meeting, with Palestinian officials denying that any decision on Arafat’s letter was taken.

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