The deep divisions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority surfaced this week when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with both sides to assess whether the time was ripe for a summit meeting that would lead to a final peace accord. The Palestinians said no, the Israelis said yes.
Albright said it would now be up to President Bill Clinton to weigh the prospects for success and decide whether to call a summit, which might be held before the end of July.
A Palestinian official said he hoped that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would resume talks in Washington next week and that Clinton would make his decision after “two or three weeks” of talks.
“We want a successful summit,” he said. “We don’t want the summit to fail.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that “substantial negotiations will begin if and when there is a summit meeting. In the meantime, we are studying each other’s positions, and I can’t consider this to be a negotiation.” Only at a summit, he said, would the two sides be ready to hammer out an agreement that he said would “strengthen Israel.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing, and I know exactly what I was elected to do,” Barak insisted. “I am confident that if there is a summit and an agreement, that [a peace treaty] would be approved by a landslide majority of the Israeli electorate. And what is more important, by an absolute majority of the Israeli settlers in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.”
Albright said she had been impressed that both sides were “engaged in serious and sustained discussions” dealing with “land, political identity and security.” She said the issues were “extraordinarily complex, but they are the issues that will shape peaceful coexistence n the years to come.”
The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, had said before Albright arrived Tuesday night that the U.S. was working so hard to help work out an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty because it believed one was still achievable in the coming months.
Meanwhile, about 4,000 Israeli demonstrators were on hand to greet Albright when she arrived at her Jerusalem hotel Tuesday night, chanting “Albright, go home” and “Hands off our land,” reflecting their demand that the U.S. not pressure Israel into relinquishing more land against Israel’s national interest.
Others chanted in Hebrew, “We live with the Palestinians. We know the Palestinians. They don’t want peace.” There were also posters hung throughout the city showing Barak in keffiyeh, with the word “Liar” above the picture.
The demonstration was one of a series of daily protests led by West Bank Jewish settlers who fear Barak is going to force them out of their homes and turn over their property to the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, in a fiery speech last week replete with threats of violence, repeated his intention to declare a Palestinian state on Sept. 13, with or without a final peace treaty with Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy responded that a unilateral declaration of statehood would “free Israel from its [Oslo] obligations,” which established the principle of land for peace. And Tuesday night he blasted Barak, saying there had been no progress in the peace talks and that “Israel is offering the maximum without receiving the minimum of the minimum.”
Ross had earlier briefed Israel’s inner cabinet on the talks. Barak requested the unprecedented move after Interior Minister Natan Sharansky threatened to quit the government unless Barak included his cabinet in the discussions.
There have been numerous leaks in recent weeks regarding compromise positions Israel might be willing to make in return for a peace accord. One report that Israel was ready to cede 92 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians was flatly denied by Barak Wednesday. He said he had not promised the Palestinians anything yet, but rather was just “sending feelers” that he declined to spell out.
There have also been reports that Israel is prepared to make compromises on Jerusalem, which Barak has continued to publicly insist would remain the undivided capital of Israel. The Palestinians want to declare East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.
The Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, said Wednesday that he believed there should be a compromise on the future status of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He said he believed the status quo should remain, which places control of the Temple Mount in the hands of the Wakf Islamic Trust. And he called for an oversight committee comprised of representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to govern activity on the Mount.
In another development, the leader of the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon said a cease-fire was in effect along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel but that it would not last unless Israel stopped violating the Lebanese border.
The Lebanese government insists that Israel troops have not completely withdrawn from southern Lebanon after its May pullout. The UN, however, has certified a complete Israeli pullout.