US plays down Blair's Mid-east peace initiative

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BENJAMIN Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, meet in London today with Madeleine Albright, the United States Secretary of State, to discuss separately the breaking of the impasse in the Middle East peace talks.

The meetings, agreed at the time of Tony Blair's visit to Israel last month, take place amid predictions from all sides that no progress is to be expected. Indeed, Israel and the United States have devoted such efforts to lowering expectations that it is surprising the talks are taking place at all. James Rubin, the US State Department spokesman, said: "There is no reason to believe we are in a position to bridge the gaps."

David Bar-Illan, a senior aide of Mr Netanyahu, said it was "utterly impossible" for Israel to accept the 13.1 per cent withdrawal from the West Bank proposed by the US because it would compromise Israel's security. Israel is offering about 9 per cent. Mr Arafat, stressing his disappointment, has accepted the American figure.

The argument over the exact proportion of the West Bank to be ceded by Israel masks the assumption among most observers that the Israeli leader is playing for time and does not want to implement the Oslo accords of 1993 with their "peace for land" formula. Mr Netanyahu has so far calculated successfully that President Bill Clinton does not want a confrontation with Israel.

"I think the administration knows our position," said Mr Bar-Illan. "It would be utterly impossible for Israel to adhere to a withdrawal of 13 per cent." Mr Arafat said progress "depends on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu because it is there the problem is and nowhere else".

The Palestinian leader's acceptance of the US position is largely based on the assumption that Israel will reject it.

Mr Netanyahu, who flew to London yesterday, was expected to make a courtesy call on Mr Blair before meeting Ms Albright. But there are no plans for a tripartite meeting between the Secretary of State, the Israeli Prime Minister and Mr Arafat. Nor are there are signs that the US is exerting pressure on Israel. Earlier in the month, 81 US Senators sent a letter to President Clinton asking him not to make public American proposals to end the stalemate in the peace process.

Mr Arafat is in a weak position. He depends entirely on a diplomatic strategy of trying to win support from the US, West Europeans and the Arab states. But Mr Netanyahu is confident he can withstand this. The Palestinian leader has no alternative to his present stance, and there is little appetite for renewed confrontation with Israel among Palestinians on the West Bank.

The only words of optimism about the London meeting came from US Vice President Al Gore, visiting Israel on the 50th anniversary of its independence. "We believe London offers an occasion for great progress. We hope and pray that progress will occur," he said.