Clinton offers pounds 750m to spur Mid-East pact

BILL CLINTON began his attempt to revive the Wye Plantation peace accords yesterday at the start of his three-day visit to Israel and Gaza, which White House aides tried to get the US President to cancel up to the last minute.

At the end of his first talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, President Clinton called on the Palestinian Authority to quell demonstrations and said he would ask Congress to allocate $1.2bn (pounds 750m) to implement the peace agreement.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel will not continue its partial withdrawal from the West Bank unless the Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat, renounce their plans unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state.

"No one can seriously expect Israel to hand over an inch of territory unless and until such an unambiguous correction is made," he said.

President Clinton's big test comes tomorrow in Gaza, where he will address the 600-strong Palestine National Council (PNC), the body which represents about 6 million Palestinians scattered across the world.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat have exchanged bitter words about the nullification by this body of anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter.

Mr Netanyahu has noisily insisted that the PNC must revoke the clauses to which he objects by a vote, while Mr Arafat says it will be done by acclamation. However, Israel has let it be known that it does not expect the votes to be actually counted and will not insist on a quorum.

If the charter is revoked in a form acceptable to the United States and to Israel, President Clinton and Mr Netanyahu will both be able to claim a victory. Both leaders are in need of one: President Clinton wants a successful visit to counter-balance the impeachment proceedings in Congress, while Mr Netanyahu wants to show to his own hard right, which could vote him out of power, that he has gained serious concessions from the Palestinians.

The talks in Jerusalem opened in an atmosphere of violence. There were riots outside Rachel's Tomb, at the entrance to Bethlehem, in which three Palestinians were injured. In the north of the West Bank, a 17-year-old Jewish girl in the settlement of Shavel Shomron was injured in a knife attack by a 15-year-old Palestinian girl.

Much of central Jerusalem has been closed to traffic around the Hilton Hotel, where President Clinton is staying. Israel has mobilised 15,000 troops and police, while Mr Clinton has brought an entourage of 1,200.

In Jewish settlements on the West Bank there is little sign that the hard right will countenance any Israeli withdrawal. At Alon Shvut, a rapidly expanding settlement of 400 families that is part of a wedge of Jewish settlements at Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, Nina Brander, 65, who had lived there 30 years, said: "Clinton is not wanted here. I don't call this a peace process, but a process of annihilation."

Mrs Brander said she was not concerned with the outcome of the peace negotiations: "In the long run there will be war whatever happens," she said. "Little girls in Palestinian schools sing songs about wiping out the Jews. They cheered when the Iraqis fired missiles at Tel Aviv during the Gulf War."

She said the problem was that, while many on President Clinton's staff were Jewish, they were "Jewish traitors".

Other settlers are less extreme. But the hard religious right has shown since the Oslo accords were first reached that it will stop at nothing to hold on to the West Bank.

In 1995, Yigal Amir, a religious student, shot dead Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, as a traitor to Israel for giving up land that God gave to the Jews.

Talia Zell, 18, another resident of the Alon Shvut settlement, said: "I don't want to give up land. But not giving it up is dangerous, too. I want peace."

At the other end of the settlement, cranes were at work building large new houses as part of the government's construction drive around Jerusalem. A few miles from Alon Shvut, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Palestinian enclave of Bethlehem, which Bill and Hillary Clinton are to visit tomorrow, labourers were working frantically to prepare the central Manger Square for the presidential visit. American flags snapped in the breeze beside the Palestinian flag outside every shop. Mohammed Mahmoud, a water engineer, negotiating his way across heaps of rubble, said he hoped Mr Clinton's visit "will bring a Palestinian state nearer".

But he said this would not do him personally much good. His main pleasure in the US President's visit was that "the Israelis are against it - Netanyahu wants to give us nothing".