US raises stakes for Mid-East talks

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES piled pressure on to Israelis and Palestinians yesterday in the hope that a deal on Middle East peace was within reach.

Amid signs of deep differences, US officials warned that it might not be possible to get agreement on a deal in the time they had hoped.

Such brinkmanship is common in complex negotiations and, although there were increasing signs that the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians was still very wide, American officials said they felt agreement was possible.

Washington is said to have raised the possibility that if there is no deal, it might recognise a Palestinian state next year - against Israel's wishes.

President Bill Clinton flew to the Maryland rural retreat where the talks were being held yesterday, with Vice- President Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, and Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser. The Central Intelligence Agency chief, George Tenet, has also been assisting with the talks, and a CIA plan for security is on the table.

However, despite US attempts to edge the participants to a deal, the news seemed to be grim. The Americans had said they wanted a deal by last night. Privately, conference facilities had been booked until tomorrow. But yesterday, staff said they had been put on stand-by until Thursday. Some US officials were talking about a multi-week extension. This seems to be aimed at pressuring the Israelis, who have said they can live with a partial agreement.

As the status-quo power, it has an interest in as little change as possible in the short run, while the Palestinians want a full agreement or none at all. The US seems to be lining up behind them - on this issue at least.

Saturday night and Sunday morning were very active. On Saturday, the Israelis were observing the Sabbath, which permitted talks but no work. However, the indications were that things were going badly and slowly. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, reportedly had a shouting match with a Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, after the former referred to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria - a term used only by right-wing Israelis and their supporters.

The core of the agreement has been well mapped for some time: an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13 per cent of the West Bank, accompanied by security assurances from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. But this is far less territory than the Palestinians had hoped for, and the security deal is causing big problems.

Israel wants the Palestinians to extradite militants suspected of attacks on Israelis. It also wants the radical group Hamas to be broken up, and it wants a ban on what it considers "provocative" statements.

The Palestinians say that Hamas can only be reformed, not broken, that Palestinians should be tried in Palestine and not elsewhere, and that there is no reason for them to be singled out over provocative statements. Israel has its own radicals, they say. Palestine wants Israel to agree to a third redeployment from the West Bank, to refrain from "unilateral" acts such as new settlements, and to set a course for a Final Status Agreement that would resolve the status of Jerusalem and a Palestinian statehood. Israel, which agreed to talks on these steps in the Oslo accords, is wary of proceeding further.

The only real sanction that Mr Arafat has is to declare unilateral statehood next May, the date set by the Oslo accords for a Final Status Agreement. Israel and the US have both asked him not to take this step unilaterally, and Israel has threatened unspecified actions, which could include annexing parts of the West Bank and intervening in others. But by merely raising the possibility that Washington could back an independent Palestine, the US is using one of the strongest weapons in its armoury.

Hillary Clinton, the US First Lady, has said in the past that she backed a Palestinian state - a statement disowned by the White House. But it was clearly a shot across Israel's bows.

Joining the Israeli team yesterday were the Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, and the Foreign Minister, Ariel Sharon, while Natan Sharansky, the Trade and Labour Minister, was already in Maryland. With Mr Netanyahu, they can make decisions that will be binding on the Israeli Cabinet. This is a sign that perhaps only now will the real negotiations take place.

Equally, it is not unusual for summit diplomacy to hit its worst moments when a deal is within sight. Brinkmanship has always been the order of the day in these talks.

But with a 19-month stalemate behind them, and Palestinians in particular feeling duped by the Israelis and betrayed by Washington, the mood is not good. Even a deal will leave plenty of bad feeling, and leave the future of the talks unresolved.