US drags Bibi back to the table

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The Independent Online
TALKS between the US and Israel on removing obstacles to the next stage of the Middle East peace process will resume in Washington tomorrow, at a meeting between the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The meeting was announced less than 24 hours after the failure of talks between Mr Netanyahu and the US special envoy, Dennis Ross, and the cancellation of yesterday's planned summit between President Bill Clinton, Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

The announcement of new talks, which came in the face of the most serious rift between the US and Israel since the founding of the state of Israel 50 years ago, seemed designed to keep hope of agreement alive and quash speculation that the US role in the Middle East peace process might be over. The Israeli prime minister, however, had planned to be in the US for a private visit, anyway, so the meeting may turn out to be little more than a formality.

Officially, Washington still appears to believe that Mr Netanyahu will come round to accepting a modified form of the US condition for a summit: agreement to hand over the next 13 per cent of West Bank territory to Palestinian authority, as stipulated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Such a summit could even be rescheduled for the end of the month.

But no one in Washington was even trying to pretend that yesterday's cancelled summit was other than a setback. It was, according to White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, "a measure of the degree of complexity of the issues and a measure of the disagreement that still exists among the parties".

Among regional specialists in Washington, there was agreement that prospects for a new meeting do not look good. So far, despite repeated efforts over more than a year, Washington has proved unable to exert sufficient pressure or offer sufficient inducement to Israel to secure Israeli commitment to the terms already agreed in the Oslo accords. Even the considerable diplomatic brinkmanship of the past weekend had no effect. The most powerful country in the world appeared powerless to deal with its staunchest ally in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Mr Netanyahu, moreover, has suffered not a wit from its defiance; his domestic popularity has only risen. There are also reports of personal tension, even anger, on Mr Netanyahu's part with the stance taken by the US and represented by Mr Ross, a development that could make an eventual rapprochement more difficult.

In the past, Mr Clinton has coupled strong words with almost limitless patience, and this appeared to be his gamble yesterday: that Israel would eventually, perhaps with additional US security guarantees for some of the more sensitive land to be ceded, accept the terms on offer.

Some hazarded that the US could apply further pressure by threatening to delay exports of sensitive military equipment or limit intelligence- sharing. But the bulk of the $3bn (pounds 1.87bn) of US aid to Israel annually depends on Congress, not on the President, and Congress is staunchly pro- Israel.

Others suggested that Mr Clinton could make public the small print of US terms for agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, demonstrate the "reasonableness" of the proposals, and challenge Mr Netanyahu to come up with an alternative. This would be denounced in Congress, however, where 81 Senators last month signed an open letter to Mr Clinton appealing to him not to make the terms public.

According to one view in Washington, however, Mr Clinton's hand is not as weak as it may look, thanks to a combination of circumstances in the Middle East and at home, and there may be virtue to waiting. So long as there is no new flare-up of terrorist violence in Israel and the occupied territories, Mr Netanyahu's brandishing of the security threat and forecasts of all-out war, will look less convincing. With relations between the US, on the one hand, and Iran and Iraq, on the other, now looking less tense, Washington's regional need for Israel is also diminished, albeit temporarily.

Leading article, page 16