WASHINGTON — President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded ideas for almost two hours Monday but failed to reach agreement on how to restart the stalled Middle East peace process, officials of both governments said.
While some of the proposals were kept secret, Netanyahu flatly rejected the top item on Washington's wish list--a halt to construction of a hotly controversial new Jewish neighborhood in historically Arab East Jerusalem, a project the White House says has damaged the Israeli-Palestinian confidence that the peace process requires.
In blunt remarks during a televised news conference and in speeches to two groups of U.S. supporters, Netanyahu said his government has a right to build houses anywhere in Jerusalem and would defy any power that tried to stop the construction on a hillside that Israelis call Har Homa and Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghneim.
On one matter, Clinton and Netanyahu expressed total agreement: Progress on peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be impossible unless terrorism comes to an end. But that was an issue on which the two governments agreed before Netanyahu made his hastily arranged trip to Washington.
"We discussed a number of ideas to move the peace process back on track, assuming that the battle for terrorism is engaged effectively," Netanyahu said at the news conference. "These are preliminary discussions. Nothing formal, nothing definitive was said."
Even before their meeting began, Clinton described as "premature" a proposal floated by Netanhayu recently for a high-stakes summit between him and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat similar to the Camp David meetings hosted two decades ago by then-President Jimmy Carter that produced peace between Israel and Egypt.
Although Clinton and Netanyahu both refused to discuss any new ideas advanced at their meeting, the Israeli prime minister confirmed that he outlined a plan to accelerate the long-range negotiating schedule with the Palestinians--assuming talks resume--on some of the knottiest issues of the conflict: Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and Palestinian sovereignty over areas now covered only by limited autonomy.
Under the existing Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, these "final status" talks are scheduled to run through May 1999. Netanyahu suggests wrapping them up in six to eight months. He said he hoped that the accelerated procedure would force the two sides to immediately address the most serious issues instead of dragging things out. He insisted it would not affect any existing rights or responsibilities under interim agreements.
Following the meeting, which lasted almost twice as long as scheduled and included about 25 minutes in which Clinton and Netanyahu talked with no aides present, the White House indicated that the next step in restarting the peace efforts is up to the Palestinians.
Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, said a high-level Palestinian delegation will visit Washington later this week for briefings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Middle East negotiator Dennis B. Ross.
But Arafat was not scheduled to visit the White House, a clear sign that nothing emerged from Netanyahu's visit that would make it likely the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks will resume any time soon.
"The peace negotiations are at a very serious impasse," one senior U.S. official said. "I can't guess when they will be turned back on."
Although Clinton and Netanyahu, talking to reporters separately after their meeting, said each side presented new ideas, the Israeli leader said the talks produced "nothing final, nothing definitive."
Netanyahu said Israel is willing to build new houses for Arabs in conjunction with the Har Homa project. U.S. officials, who said before the meeting that Clinton would urge Netanyahu to do more to improve the standard of living of Palestinians, said the promise seemed to be a positive step.
But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, recalling that Netanyahu's remarks only repeated a pledge that he made at the time he originally announced the Har Homa project, said the key question now is whether the Israelis will follow through.
"There have been a number of proposals [for Arab housing] over the past 25 years, but few have been realized," he said.
In brief remarks to reporters later, Clinton described the talks as "long, very thorough . . . frank," all diplomatic code words for continuing disagreement.
He added: "Now it is important for us to meet with the Palestinians, and we will try to get this [peace process] up and going again."
Netanyahu sandwiched his talks with Clinton and other top administration officials between speeches to two groups of enthusiastic supporters in Washington. The supporters cheered heartily when he accused Arafat of "almost zero effort" to curb terrorism and when he vowed to keep Jerusalem undivided under Israeli sovereignty.
The appearances before a breakfast of pro-Israel Christian and Jewish leaders and a dinner sponsored by the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies for Israeli causes on Capitol Hill, gave Netanyahu a chance to demonstrate a firm foundation of support in this country, regardless of any criticism he might have encountered at the White House.
There appeared to be little criticism to counteract. Although McCurry said the president continues to oppose the Har Homa project because it "tends to undermine [Palestinian] confidence," Clinton ducked a chance to restate his position when an Israeli reporter asked about it during a photo session before the meeting.