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Mideast Peace in Question Despite White House Talks

By Peter Baker and Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

President Clinton tried without success Monday to rescue the Middle East peace process during tense talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 that left unclear how the deteriorating situation can be repaired.

Clinton emerged grim-faced after two hours of what he called "very specific, frank, candid and long" discussions - and he wearily emphasized the word "long." Netanyahu later reported that his White House visit had produced "nothing definitive" and said that all blame for the impasse lies with the Palestinians.

The White House said Clinton offered several unspecified ideas for how to jump-start the peace negotiations, but the president and his aides reported no tangible progress afterward.

Instead of traditional adjectives such as "optimistic" or "productive," U.S. officials used phrases like "profoundly serious" to characterize the session. They said it will become clear whether movement is possible only after follow-up talks with the Israelis and with a Palestinian delegation visiting later this week.

One idea that Clinton did not embrace was Netanyahu's suggestion for a high-level, high-stakes summit akin to Jimmy Carter's Camp David conference that produced peace between Israel and Egypt nearly two decades ago. The president said he would rather stick with the "pre-existing process."

In his public remarks, Netanyahu struck a defiant tone indicating little interest in making concessions. During appearances in Washington both before and after his meeting with Clinton, the Israeli leader vowed not to retreat from his decision to build Jewish housing in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem despite U.S. criticism and strong Arab opposition. He declared that he will "never, never" allow the holy city to be divided again.

In a speech to a politically conservative group called Voices United for Israel, Netanyahu cast the dispute as a conflict between Arab terrorists guilty of "war crimes" and his government's efforts to provide apartments for young couples having children, which he mockingly called the "terrorism of the walk-up rentals."

"He came loaded for bear," one White House official said of Netanyahu after the meeting with Clinton.

Halfway across the world, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used similarly provocative language in telling a diplomatic meeting in New Delhi that Israel is waging "a war of aggression against our people" and had effectively issued "a declaration of war against the peace process."

The White House meeting came at what one Clinton aide called "a very fragile point" in the Middle East peace process. It has been brought to a halt by Arab anger over the Jerusalem housing project and other Israeli decisions, and by Israeli outrage over terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists.

While leery of pushing Netanyahu too hard, particularly at the risk of offending American Jewish leaders, the White House is anxious to get the negotiations back on track lest it watch one of the crown jewels of its foreign policy disintegrate into a new cycle of violence and religious strife.

How to do that, though, remained uncertain after Monday's session. "The peace negotiations are at a very difficult impasse, a critical point," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters after the meeting. "We're working hard to try repair that. I cannot speculate. I cannot guess as to when they'll be turned back on."

A high-level delegation of Palestinian officials, though not including Arafat, will visit Washington in coming days for talks at the State Department. Palestinian and other Arab officials had hoped Clinton would put overt pressure on Israel to stop construction of the controversial Jerusalem housing project and commit itself to more extensive West Bank troop withdrawals. But they have heard nothing public from Washington, as the administration has stuck to its policy of not publicly discussing the details of its proposals.

Netanyahu showed little inclination Monday to be conciliatory toward the Palestinians. At a news conference after he met Clinton, the prime minister said "post-colonial guilt" in the West was responsible for what he described as a collective rush to blame Israel for the breakdown of the peace process when blame should instead lie with the Palestinians.