Netanyahu Plans 1 West Bank Pullout
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The latest peace mission of President Clinton’s Mideast envoy ended Friday with Israel only hardening its position, dismissing earlier pledges to Palestinians on West Bank troop withdrawals.
Talking tough ahead of a meeting with Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will carry out just one, limited withdrawal instead of the three he had promised the Palestinians.
And in defiance of U.S. requests to halt settlement construction, Israel revealed tentative plans to double the number of homes in Jewish settlements over the next two decades _ a plan that further angered the Palestinians.
The envoy, Dennis Ross, did take part in some negotiations during his four-day trip that yielded progress. Those areas came in a safe passage route for Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, a Gaza airport, and security cooperation _ including establishment of a security hot-line.
``In some areas, I could feel some narrowing of differences. In other areas, differences remain,″ Ross said after meeting with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
But the Palestinians called the latest U.S. peace effort an utter failure. ``Zero. There are no results,″ said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Ross also was working to prepare for meetings Clinton will hold with both Arafat and Netanyahu later this month in Washington. On Friday, Ross shuttled between the leaders one last time before leaving Saturday.
Arafat deputy Nabil Abourdeineh said the Washington meetings would be critical. ``The last chance will be in Washington _ it may be the last chance to save the peace process,″ he told reporters.
The United States had hoped to receive assurances from Israel that it would carry out a promised troop withdrawal from more West Bank territory.
But Netanyahu, under pressure from right-wing hard-liners in his coalition government, said any withdrawal depended on the Palestinian Authority meeting Israeli conditions, including cracking down on militants and reducing the size of its police force.
And in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv published Friday, Netanyahu said he would only carry out one withdrawal.
``You can’t ask us to fulfill all our commitments concerning the pullbacks when they haven’t fulfilled a single one of their commitments,″ Netanyahu said of the Palestinians.
``So I proposed an agreement in which we will carry out one pullback, and the rest of the territory will be handed over as part of the final status agreement,″ he said.
The United States has insisted in the past that Israel carry out all three pullbacks. The Palestinians, who now have full or partial control over 27 percent of the West Bank, expect to get another 60 percent of the land in the three withdrawals.
Israel media have said that Netanyahu is willing to offer just 10 to 12 percent more.
Plans revealed Friday by Israel’s Housing Ministry for the construction of more than 30,000 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are likely to complicate future pullbacks. Under the plans, by 2020 the Jewish population would double in the areas Palestinians claim for a future state.
``The Israeli position is more settlement, more land confiscation, and more arrogance in refusing to implement the agreement,″ an angry Abed Rabbo said.
The Haaretz daily reported that nearly half of the units have already been approved or are in the final stages of approval, although the Housing Ministry maintained no approval had been given yet.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley renewed U.S. opposition to settlement expansions, saying, ``They do not help to create the environment required for successful negotiations.″
In the West Bank city of Hebron, more than 1,000 supporters of Arafat’s Fatah party burned an Israeli flag, chanting, ``No to settlements!″
Fatah leaders said many of the party’s followers have become frustrated with a lack of progress in the talks.
In Jerusalem, 250,000 Palestinian worshippers filled the Al Aqsa mosque to mark the second Friday _ the Islamic Sabbath _ of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Israel is on high alert following reports that Islamic militants were planning to carry out an attack during Ramadan.
Hundreds of police officers, some on horseback, sealed off streets ringing the mosque and the rest of the Old City.
At an army checkpoint leading into Jerusalem from Ramallah, Israeli soldiers diverted traffic and chased young Palestinian men and old women through the fields as they tried to bypass the barrier.