Hopes raised over Israeli peace deal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON is clearly hoping that his administration will be remembered for more than just the Monica Lewinsky affair. With a Middle East summit set for mid-October, he has high hopes of scoring a diplomatic success that will confirm that he has serious foreign policy achievements, even if in domestic policy he is stranded.

He can legitimately claim to have played an important role in brokering peace in Northern Ireland, to have forced Serbia to the negotiating table over Bosnia, and now to be continuing the work of previous administration in the Middle East. But he is not there yet, by a long chalk.

There is obviously some way to go before a deal can be done on the Middle East, as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, told Israeli television yesterday. "I think (the gaps) are narrowing but there is still a distance to go to close them." The key issue for Israelis is Palestinian security guarantees, without which they will not be willing to cede further territory from the Occupied West Bank.

Yesterday's mini-summit was intended to break the deadlock that has prevailed since Israel began building in east Jerusalem eighteen months ago, plunging the region into gloom. The US has been heavily criticised for failing to apply more pressure on Israel, but over the weekend Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu. Mr Netanyahu had been invited to Washington yesterday, but the arrival of Mr Arafat showed that all sides thought there might be some increased room for manoeuvre.

It was the first time that both had been at the White House since January. Mr Netanyahu had a further session alone with the President, and Mr Arafat will return today.

The meeting was also intended to pre-empt a speech by the Palestinian President to the United Nations General Assembly in which he had been expected to say that Palestine would declare statehood next May if there was no progress. Under the Oslo peace accords, May is the deadline for negotiations for the final phase of peace talks. In the event, Mr Arafat moderated his words. "I would like to call upon all of you from this place, the source of international legitimacy and peacemaking ... to stand by our people," he said, "especially as the five-year transitional period provided for in the Palestinian-Israeli agreements will end on May 4, 1999, and our people demand of us to shoulder our responsibilities and they await the establishment of the right of our people to self-determination." This is why there is a new flurry of negotiation: if there is no deal, then Palestine will press ahead anyway next year, triggering a conflict with the Israelis. There is a big difference between getting agreement on an interim deal this year, and a final status agreement that decides on a Palestinian state.

A deal this year would do more than just bolster President Clinton's credentials: it would help with mid-term elections, giving him a chance to rise above the partisan political fray and show himself a world leader again.