Middle East Talks Resume, But at Pace to Deliver Peace?

Clinton didn't get concrete results he wanted, but at least the leaders agreed to restart the stalled process in talks Sunday.

The Washington summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat produced little substantive diplomatic progress - but it may still be too early to call the meeting a failure, or a success.

Such judgment likely will have to await the outcome of a further peace talks set to begin Sunday in the Middle East. If those talks end with quick results - such as an Israeli agreement to fulfill its promise to withdraw troops from the West Bank city of Hebron - the Washington summit could be called a positive ice-breaker. If they flop, the conclusion on Washington might be this: nice try, but maybe a waste of time.

And behind the meetings, and the handshakes, and continued Mideast violence, looms a key unanswered question. What's Likud Prime Minister Netanyahu's real attitude toward a peace process that's largely the creation of his Labor Party predecessors?

It's not yet clear whether Mr. Netanyahu has any intention of moving beyond things already agreed to, such as the Hebron pullout, and addressing difficult end game issues such as the future status of Jerusalem.

Many Palestinians have pinned hopes, reasonably or not, on the belief that resolution of these final status questions is now possible. What will happen if they believe their hopes are dashed?

"For three years now, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been moving forward along the path to a lasting peace. Every step is hard ... but the progress they have made has proved to the world that progress is possible," said President Clinton on Thursday, as he tried to put the best face on his attempt at Mideast diplomacy.

One thing was clear in the wake of the Washington meetings: Despite the growing acquaintance of their leaders, the degree of trust between Israelis and Palestinians has been badly damaged by the events of recent weeks.

Both sides have seen some of their worst fears about the peace process realized. For many Israelis the sight of a newly created Palestinian police force firing on their soldiers was traumatic. A poll by an Israeli newspaper found this week that fully two-thirds of respondents now believe it was a mistake to allow the arming of the Palestinians.

Palestinians, for their part, remain frustrated by what they consider months of peace process foot-dragging by the Netanyahu government. They believe the Israelis provoked the current uprising by not living up to the conditions of the Oslo accords, signed by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mr. Arafat, and President Clinton on the White House lawn three years ago. Their dream of eventual statehood suddenly seems as far away as ever.

Many Palestinian leaders were bitterly disappointed in the results of the Washington summit, which they had hoped would result in such Israeli concessions as a closure of the Temple Mount tunnel in Jerusalem, symbol of the latest round of violence and unrest.

But the summit results closely patterned the Israeli government's opening positions, complained Palestinians. Netanyahu refused American requests to close the tunnel, to set a date for concluding an agreement on Hebron withdrawal, or to set a date for starting final status talks on Jerusalem.

IT'S true that new talks on Hebron are now scheduled for Sunday on the Israeli and Palestinian-controlled Gaza border. But Hebron is an issue that Palestinians had believed already settled, with a pullout promised months ago by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

"These are issues that have already been settled," says Khalil Jahshan, head of the National Association of Arab Americans. "We cannot now accommodate [Netanyahu] by redefining the process and changing the rules at half time. If he's not willing to move forward, let's just declare the peace process dead."

Israeli officials, for their part, seemed happy about the outcome of the Washington meeting. The summit was the equivalent of a "time out," which at least helped lower the level of violence in the region, they pointed out. And Prime Minister Netanyahu at least indicated a willingness to move forward on the question of Hebron.

"We've made it very clear that we are committed to a redeployment in Hebron," said Netanyahu at a post-meeting press conference in Washington. "We're not reluctant to do it."

And the summit's US hosts insisted - perhaps rightly - that there was never a very large chance that Netanyahu would suddenly agree to close the disputed tunnel, or talk about Jerusalem, once he sat down in a White House chair. The meetings were not scripted, US officials pointed out, and the main goal was just to get the two sides together, talking, face to face.

Such a personal encounter was absolutely a precondition to any further peace progress in the Middle East, they said.

The real test will come down the line, with the talks beginning Sunday.

"Please, please give us a chance to let this thing work in the days ahead," said Clinton.

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