Clinton charm fails to heal

Middle East crisis: Peace talks lose momentum in Washington as negotiators fail to agree timetable for withdrawal from Hebron
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The Independent Online
The emergency Middle East summit ended in virtual failure yesterday, as both Israelis and Palestinians indicated no progress on key issues, most notably a firm timetable for a speedy withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank town of Hebron.

The best Mr Clinton could offer, at a sombre White House press conference, was a start to stepped-up, open-ended negotiations starting in the region this weekend, chaired by the State Department's top Middle Eastern specialist Dennis Ross, with the Hebron question at the top of the agenda.

But the differences between the two sides yawn as wide as ever. "I do not know that the crisis is over," the President acknowledged, as the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan sat stony faced on the dais behind him in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Progress, he admitted, had been less than he had hoped. But Mr Clinton insisted, "the peace process did not begin yesterday and will not be finished tomorrow." Both sides knew there was no turning back. In essence the US has succeeded in its minimal aims for the two-day summit - securing a commitment of Israelis and Palestinians to avoid violence, and an agreement to restart talks. But in practice Mr Arafat goes home empty handed, with Mr Netanyahu having refused concessions of substance across the board.

No agreement appears to have been reached on an international commission to examine the future of the tunnel on Temple Mount, whose re-opening ignited the latest bout of violence. Israel refused to accept an immediate start to withdrawal of its troops from Hebron, for want of adequate "security arrangements." Mr Clinton's claim of a "higher level of trust" between the two men will soon be tested by events in the region. His Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, predicted that concrete results to the negotiations would come "within weeks".

The last chance of avoiding a breakdown, of perilous consequence to the entire region, had rested in a White House lunch attended by the four leaders - in the hope that they might succeed where all-night negotiations of officials had failed.

The lunch was delayed to allow yet more talks, but these seem to have yielded nothing. The fact that neither Mr Netanyahu, Mr Arafat or even King Hussein would venture a word at the White House press conference despite repeated invitations to do so, only strengthened the impression that anything they said would only make matters worse.

Yesterday's discouraging news was a sharp corrective to the hopes fanned by an unexpectedly long and direct session between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat on Tuesday. But all the sticking points remained, according to Palestinian officials; not just Hebron, but easier entry for Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel and a new airport in the Gaza Strip.

In domestic political terms, the question whether the meagre results of the summit would be enough to allow the White House to deflect criticism of Mr Clinton's handling of the crisis by Bob Dole, his opponent in the election less than five weeks off. Languishing in the polls, Mr Dole and his advisers now depict the Middle East as another example of the President's foreign policy ineptness. "We've lost a lot of credibility," the Republican candidate told newspaper editors in the key Middle West state of Ohio yesterday.