Confident Israel snubs Clinton peace summit

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL has finally rejected President Clinton's offer of a summit in Washington today, apparently confident that it can withstand any pressure from the United States for a limited withdrawal from the West Bank. David Bar-Illan, aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said a summit appeared "not to be possible until about 28 May".

The US demanded that the Israeli leader accept its plan for a 13.1 per cent withdrawal from the West Bank as a condition for attending today's summit. Mr Netanyahu told Dennis Ross, the US peace envoy: "You are putting me in an impossible situation. You want to depict me as the one who is thwarting the peace effort and I'm not prepared to accept that." Mr Ross said later: "There are differences that remain. The differences are not large, but they do remain."

It is not clear how far President Clinton will dare to go in confronting Israel. The ultimatum issued in London by Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, last week was progressively watered down. First Mr Netanyahu was asked to arrive by 11 May, but then it was hinted that he could come later. American terms were said to be undiscussable, but Mr Netanyahu successfully insisted that Mr Ross would have to come to Israel to discuss them.

The Israeli Prime Minister may yet fly to the US this week - but not to go to the White House. Instead, he is expected to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the powerful Jewish lobby group. The White House will see it as a serious challenge if Mr Netanyahu tries to activate the American Jewish community against Washington's proposals for a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu has good reason to believe he can withstand any pressure President Clinton may apply. Nahum Barnea, an Israeli columnist on the daily Yediot Aharanot, noted that Mr Clinton has once again been weakened by the Monica Lewinsky scandal while Vice President Al Gore "is up to his neck with money donated by Jews, which is supposed to finance his election campaign". Aipac last month got 81 Senators to sign a letter to the President urging him not to put pressure on Israel.

There is not much Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, can now do, except doggedly pursue his strategy of trying to increase the diplomatic pressure on Israel from the US, Europe and the Arab world. Nabil Abourdeineh, an aide of Mr Arafat, said if nothing was agreed with Israel, "it will be a very dangerous situation and we will be heading towards a confrontation". Mr Arafat is keen to prevent any violence which might give Mr Netanyahu an alibi for breaking off talks.

The Israeli Prime Minister is under pressure from the extreme wing of his right-wing government not to give up any of the West Bank. Israeli voters also oppose the US proposals by a small majority. According to opinion polls, Mr Netanyahu leads Ehud Barak, leader of the more pacific Labour party, by 42 per cent to 38 per cent.