Clinton pushes hard for Israel-Palestine deal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MIDDLE EAST peace negotiations headed into their most critical phase last night, as American president Bill Clinton stepped in to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a deal. "Tonight will be the serious night of work," an American official said, as negotiators prepared to work through until the small hours of the morning.

Mr Clinton met his Middle East team over lunch to review progress, then met President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian delegation for over an hour. He telephoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and then met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the afternoon. He was to stay for an informal dinner at which all the principals were due to participate. "I hear they're cooking up some barbecue food," the official said.

Mr Clinton, who launched the talks on Thursday between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, had cut short a campaign trip on Friday and returned to Washington so that he could be on hand at Wye Plantation, the rural retreat on the Maryland coast where the participants have been hidden away from the media. He was expected to return today.

Mr Clinton, who played an important role in the Northern Ireland peace talks and in the Dayton Agreement which ended the fighting in Bosnia, is also involved in trying to bring an end to the crisis in Kosovo. He clearly would like his legacy to be as a peacemaker, so that he is not just remembered for his liaisons with Monica Lewinsky. The more cynical observers have called this strategy "Wag the Dove", a play on the title of the film Wag the Dog, where a fictional president launches a war to divert attention from a sex scandal.

Yesterday's talks were informal, since the Jewish sabbath meant that Israeli officials could not work. But they continued to talk. Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet was drafted in to give advice on a security regime, the most difficult part of the negotiations.

Israelis are pressing for a comprehensive security agreement, which would force the Palestinian authorities to break Hamas, the militant Islamic organisation, prevent statements that Israel says amount to "incitement", and allow for the extradition of 36 Palestinian suspects to Israel. On the latter issue, the US has proposed a compromise - that suspects be tried by Palestinian courts, but Palestine is resisting this. Israel says that it cannot cede a further 13 per cent of the West Bank territory which it occupies unless it receives security guarantees from the Palestinians.