Netanyahu tells US: I'm not for turning

The meagre hopes of rescuing the Middle East peace process took a further blow yesterday with a blistering speech here by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, in which he vowed to press on with his settlements policy, promised no change in the status of Jerusalem, and ruled out any concessions in the face of Palestinian "terrorism".

Addressing a pro-Israeli group immediately before his crucial White House meeting with President Clinton, Mr Netanyahu sounded truculent in his determination to press ahead with the Har Homa housing project in mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which has sparked violent daily clashes since Israeli contractors began work last month on the 6,500-house development.

Why not? Mr Netanyahu in effect told the American Israel Public Affairs committee here. "We're allowing contractors to build in Har Homa ... that is our right, our obligation." And he mocked Palestinian opposition to the scheme: "This simple act has been described as terrorism of the walk- up rentals, terrorism of the condominiums." His audience roared with laughter.

As for a meaningful gesture from the Israelis to reduce tensions between the two sides, that seems equally improbable.

The Prime Minister noted he had been urged to make concessions "in return for a real crackdown by the Palestinian authority on the terrorist organisation". But this would be "pure and simple surrender to terrorism ... we are being told to pay for the privilege of not being killed ... we are not going to do that."

Meanwhile the Arab conviction that when push comes to shove the US will always support Israel will only have been hardened by Vice President Al Gore's assertion to the same pressure group that "during this complex period" the Clinton administration would not let Israel down. "I join you here as an ally," Mr Gore proclaimed, to riotous applause.

Not surprisingly the mood was sombre in the Oval Office as Mr Clinton and Mr Netanyahu sat down to talk yesterday, with neither man apparently willing or able to make a major move. In remarks to reporters beforehand Mr Clinton spoke only of the need to halt terrorism, breathing not a word about the temporary halt to the new settlement scheme that Washington had been hoping to secure, but which the Israeli Prime Minister seemed to rule out in advance.

Mr Clinton also poured cold water on talk of a second "Camp David" summit, between Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, moderated by the US. It was important not to "jump the gun," Mr Clinton said. "We have to have the right conditions and understanding before we go forward again."

Caught between Mr Netanyahu's intransigence and his reluctance to offend the politically influential US Jewish lobby, Mr Clinton seemed last night to have few options, despite arguments from all sides here that only if the US "knocks heads together" can what remains of the peace process be salvaged.

Instead, Washington yesterday was playing down expectations of real progress from the Clinton/Netanyahu session. The rebuilding of confidence between the two sides was "a work in progress", Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said, noting that a senior Palestinian delegation was already in Washington and would meet the President this week.

If anything, the US reluctance to take a direct intermediary's role is growing, with officials insisting that only Israelis and Palestinians themselves can settle their differences. That casts doubt not only on Israel's notion of a repeat of the 1978 Camp David Summit that led to its peace treaty with Israel but even on an early visit to the Middle East by the new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.