Israel Dodges US Deadline

In meeting with Albright yesterday, Netanyahu says politics at home ties his hands on West Bank pullout.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said earlier this week that she wanted to impress a "sense of urgency about dealing with the peace process" upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the prime minister's domestic considerations appear to have bought him a stay, and are allowing him to convince American officials that no harm can be done by putting a decision on Israel's overdue handover of land to Palestinians on his list of New Year's resolutions instead.

At a meeting with Ms. Albright yesterday in Paris without the detailed maps she had requested, it became clear that Mr. Netanyahu will not meet Washington's unofficial deadline to tender a plan for a "credible" handover of West Bank land to the Palestinians by the year's end.

US calls for Israeli compliance with the Oslo peace accords have grown urgent in recent months. Israel's foot-dragging has meant growing tension between the US and its Arab allies, reflected recently in the crisis with Iraq.

Albright met with Palestinan leader Yasser Arafat in London later in the day to talk about Palestinian commitments Israel seeks on combating terrorism.

Blaming a divided Cabinet and trying to ensure his power in a government riddled with members willing to topple him over any further concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu told US officials that he cannot be expected to make the handover decision until January.

By law, Netanyahu must pass his 1998 budget by Dec. 31. Netanyahu suggests that if he makes a decision on redeployment before then, hard-liners in his government may refuse to pass his budget and cause his coalition to fall.

Joining the dissidents would be opposition members, including politicians angry about the social-spending cuts Netanyahu made to next year's $60 billion budget.

"It's very difficult to twist arms on one issue when they have the issue of the budget they can use against you," says Netanyahu aide David Bar-Illan.

When Netanyahu met with Albright less than two weeks ago, she said the US could wait two days "but not two weeks" before getting detailed plans on the further redeployment.

But diplomatic sources say the Clinton administration would probably ease up on the deadline. American officials, the sources say, are pleased to see that there is any serious discussion at all of redeployment plans.

Meanwhile, two Cabinet factions sparring about what the map of redeployment should look like provide a recipe for stagnation - and, Palestinians say, an excuse for postponement.

Hampering a swift decision are differences of opinion even within the four-member ministerial power team that Netanyahu recently formed to hammer out the next West Bank pullback.

The team's senior strategist is ex-general Ariel Sharon, the infrastructure minister. He suggests creating a security zone of four to six miles along the Green Line - Israel's pre-1967 borders - and another about 12 miles wide along the Jordan Valley.

In this plan, however, the Palestinians might end up with autonomous islands, not one piece of contiguous West Bank land, something Palestinian negotiators roundly reject.

But a more conciliatory wing of Netanyahu's team says Israel could manage with security zones half the size of Mr. Sharon's.

This wing includes Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who also presented a map. With him is Foreign Minister David Levy. When Netanyahu appeared ready to adopt Mr. Mordechai's map, Sharon made veiled threats that he would quit the government. Netanyahu backed down.

At the end of the troop redeployments, the Mordechai plan would hold onto about 50 to 55 percent of the West Bank; in Sharon's vision, 65 percent.

What has many Netanyahu supporters stirred up is the future of the 127 settlements Israel has built in the West Bank since it took control of the territory 30 years ago.

The Land of Israel front, a block of 10 Knesset members opposed to any more territorial concessions, says it will pull away from Netanyahu's coalition if he agrees to withdraw - and try to topple the government. And with Sharon also threatening to leave, Netanyahu's 66 to 54 Knesset majority could be in danger.

The effort to push talks forward was noted in Washington. President Clinton said he would meet Netanyahu in January and denied reports that he had snubbed him last month.

"The next time we'll meet, we'll have a productive meeting because we have something to talk about, because something's being done," Mr. Clinton said.

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