Israel, Palestinians Renew War of Words, Delaying Redeployment
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Israel, Palestinians Renew War of Words, Delaying Redeployment

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The two parties to the peace process have renewed their war of words, less than a month after they signed a land-for-security deal at the White House.

Reacting to comments by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that he was suspending a West Bank redeployment slated for this week until the Palestinian leader retracts his latest statement that he will declare Palestinian statehood next May.

The premier’s comments came shortly before the Knesset began debating the Wye agreement, which calls for an Israeli pullback from 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. The accord, which ended a 19-month stalemate in the peace process, was expected to usher in a new period of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

But to the dismay of the United States, which brokered the deal, both sides have returned to inflammatory rhetoric, and the agreement’s implementation has been delayed.

Netanyahu announced the postponement one day after Arafat spoke at an event in the West Bank town of Ramallah to mark the Palestinian declaration of independence issued 10 years ago in Algiers.

In addition to reiterating his vow to declare a Palestinian state, Arafat told the gathering of Fatah members, “Our rifles are ready, and we are prepared to use them against whoever tries to prevent us from praying in Jerusalem.”

In recent weeks Arafat has faced growing criticism — not only from Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas, but also from within his own Fatah organization, the main body in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“Arafat’s standing among his own people has been weakened” by signing the Wye accord, Wadia Abu-Nassar, of the Open University in Tel Aviv, said in an interview. “He must make overtures toward the extremists, and direct an accusing finger toward the Israelis, in order to tell his people, `Don’t worry, I have not deserted you.'”

But apart from attempting to placate his own opposition, Arafat’s address was also a deliberate reminder that the Wye accord did not amount to any compromise on one of the ultimate Palestinian goals — an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Speaking at the opening of the Knesset debate, Netanyahu blasted the Palestinian leader for heating up the political atmosphere with his declarations.

The premier said Arafat’s remarks were a “clear threat, not only to force the final status agreement on us, but to do so with violence. It is a dual violation of the agreements.

“I do not intend to carry out any redeployment, including the first phase this week, until the matter is resolved,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu also said he plans to convene his Cabinet later this week to discuss the issue.

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu called Arafat and demanded a public retraction.

Arafat, speaking subsequently in Jericho, said he remained committed to the peace process.

But Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan said Arafat’s statement did not contain a retraction and was therefore unacceptable to Israel.

Palestinian officials countered that Netanyahu had misunderstood Arafat’s remarks and that the self-rule authority remains committed to its decision to pursue peace.

“He did not mean guns in the literal sense,” Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ziad told Israel Radio. “He was talking about Palestinian rights to Jerusalem.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Arafat, charged Israel with contributing to the inflammatory atmosphere.

Tibi cited comments made by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who said Jewish settlers should grab as much West Bank land as they can to keep it from the Palestinians.

“Whatever is seized will be ours. Whatever isn’t seized will be in their hands,” said the hawkish Sharon, who championed Jewish settlement in areas captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Sharon had warned that if the peace process continues to deteriorate, a free- for-all would develop in which in the West Bank would be up for grabs.

The rhetoric from both sides heated up as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was visiting the region to oversee implementation of the Wye accord.

Shortly before meeting with Ross on Monday, Arafat summoned Israeli reporters to his headquarters and tried to downplay his remarks, saying they were nothing more than a response to a question.

Both Netanyahu and Arafat face strong internal opposition to the Wye accord, and their respective declarations can well be viewed as an attempt to soften that opposition.

Just the same, American officials have their hands full with what looks like two less-than-willing partners to the peace process.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin criticized the comments issued from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“There is no place in this process for statements which call for or suggest violent actions. These remarks were wrong. And we will be raising them directly with Chairman Arafat,” Rubin said.

But at the same time, he had little sympathy for Netanyahu’s announcement of postponing the redeployment.

“We expect both parties to abide by the agreement they signed, which did not include conditions about subjects like this,” Rubin said. “The Israelis and the Palestinians signed a document at the White House which imposed certain obligations on them, and those obligations did not come with conditions about every word that was said by every party.”

Using language that echoed what he said about Arafat, Rubin also criticized Sharon’s “land grab” statement.

“It is absolutely essential that the right kind of environment be created for permanent-status negotiations,” Rubin said.

“Statements such as the one made by Foreign Minister Sharon undermine the trust and confidence necessary for such an environment. And we will be raising this statement with the Foreign Ministry directly.”

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