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Israel defiant on troop pull-out

ISRAEL YESTERDAY rebuffed President Bill Clinton's attempt to get it to continue troop withdrawals from the West Bank under the Wye Agreement, saying the Palestinians must first meet Israeli conditions.

The meeting between Mr Clinton, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, at the Erez crossing yesterday failed to produce a breakthrough. Earlier Mr Netanyahu said the Palestinians should not be rewarded for revoking, the previous day, anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter . "Arafat should have cancelled the covenant five years ago. I have no intention of granting him a prize for that."

After the Erez meeting he said the Palestinians had to meet a number of Israeli demands before the Wye accords are implemented. They include a renunciation by Mr Arafat of any intention unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state, accepting Israel's criteria for the release of prisoners, and clamping down on anti-Israeli incitement.

Mr Clinton sought to put a more optimistic gloss on the results of his visit. "We now have to decide practical means to go forward and I think we are well on the way to doing that." An American official said the US expected the troop withdrawals to go forward quickly.

US strategy during Mr Clinton's three-day visit to Israel and the self- ruled Palestinian enclaves has been to ignore provocative statements by Mr Netanyahu, hoping they are largely directed at the ultra-nationalist far right in Israel. He is not likely to win a vote of confidence in the Knesset next week if the far right votes against him.

After the Erez meeting Mr Clinton went to Bethlehem, the Palestinian enclave 10 minutes' drive from the centre of Jerusalem, where he lit a Christmas tree and visited the Church of the Nativity. He then went to Masada, where Jews fought to the last against Roman legions in AD73 at the end of the Jewish rebellion.

Mr Clinton was dogged on his trip by questions about impeachment. Asked if he could separate his personal problems from his official duties, he said: "Absolutely. You need to turn up to work every day. It is not a complicated thing." Mr Netanyahu may calculate that with Mr Clinton possibly facing trial by the Senate next year the White House will be in no position to put pressure on Israel.

But Palestinians are relishing the deepening confrontation between the administration and Mr Netanyahu. They were also quick yesterday to accuse Mr Netanyahu of preventing Mr Clinton from reviving the Wye agreement.

At the same time Mr Arafat is jubilant that, verbally at least, the Palestinians are being treated by the US on an equal footing with the Israelis. They were almost as surprised as Israelis to find Mr Clinton telling them in Gaza that he recognised the "the right of the Palestinians to live free today, tomorrow and for ever."

Mr Clinton's departure without any agreement on the release of prisoners whom the Palestinians want see free may lead to a resumption of the riots and rallies that halted while he was here.

If Mr Arafat tries to suppress the riots he will face accusations from Palestinians that he is betraying men who had acted under his orders simply to please Mr Clinton.

Robert Fisk,

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