Netanyahu ready to snub US summit

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The Independent Online
THE Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday that he may not go to Washington for a summit next week, if attendance is conditional on accepting American terms for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

"Am I obligated to accept every invitation on any condition?" he asked an interviewer from Israeli army radio. "I am ready to go, that's not the problem. But if they tell me to go and accept certain conditions unacceptable to us? We are a sovereign country."

Mr Netanyahu left the question hanging in the air, but the implication is that he will not endorse the US plan for Israel to withdraw from 13 per cent of the West Bank as the price for attending a summit with President Bill Clinton on 11 May. A final decision will be taken at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet next Sunday.

Since he became prime minister in 1996, Mr Netanyahu's strategy has been to avoid confrontation with the US by showing willingness to talk endlessly, but not to agree anything. At the same time, he has succeeded in so watering down the Oslo accords that they bear little resemblance to their original form.

After the meeting in London a source in Mr Netanyahu's office was quoted as saying: "The talks here have proven that the Prime Minister's strategic objective was attained. The Oslo process has come to a halt. Instead of transferring most of the territory of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] to the Palestinians within a year and a half, we're in a position where most of the territory will be in our hands prior to the final status talks."

Mr Netanyahu can count on support from the US Congress where 81 senators signed a letter last month calling on President Clinton not to put pressure on Israel. At the same time, the repeated failure by the US to get Israel to fulfil the terms of the Oslo accords is damaging America's standing in the region.

Mr Netanyahu can probably get cabinet support for withdrawal if he tries. American officials were reportedly astonished that he came to London without authority from his cabinet to carry out further redeployment on the West Bank.

A sign of growing friction between Israel and the Palestinians came yesterday when a 28-year-old Jewish seminary student was stabbed to death in the Old City of Jerusalem. He belonged to the Ateret Cohanim (Crown of the Priests) settler movement which takes over Palestinian-owned houses. He was killed as he walked to the Wailing Wall in the early hours of the morning. He carried a gun and fired one shot before collapsing.