JERUSALEM — Less than a week before President Clinton is scheduled to arrive here to promote the land-for-security deal he brokered in October, Israeli and Palestinian peacemaking is again in crisis, with disputes raging over the new accord and over the Clinton visit itself.
On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian leaders accused one another of lying about the terms of the latest peace deal, which was suspended last week by Israel. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners joined a hunger strike to protest their continued detention by Israel. And efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bolster his increasingly shaky coalition appeared, for the moment, to have failed.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, several of Netanyahu's Cabinet ministers called on Clinton to postpone his high-profile visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas, which is to begin Saturday.
In response, U.S. officials insisted that the three-day visit will proceed as planned. But they acknowledged that issues both symbolic and substantive have yet to be resolved and that tensions are building between Clinton's Israeli and Palestinian hosts. "There's a high level of negative vibes right now," one said.
Netanyahu raised that level further Sunday. In an interview with Reuters news service, the Israeli leader accused Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of lying to his people about the new peace deal, particularly about the explosive issue of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and of failing to carry out commitments.
"Peace will take place when both sides, not just Israel, keep their peace contracts, and we're not about to be patsies on this," Netanyahu said in the interview.
Palestinians say Israel has violated terms of the agreement by not freeing jailed political activists and instead releasing 150 common criminals alongside 100 political prisoners in the first phase of implementation. Netanyahu says he is abiding by the accord and insists that he never agreed to release prisoners who carried out attacks against Israelis.
The United States says Israel has fulfilled its commitments so far regarding the prisoners. To date, 250 have been released of the 750 required to be freed under the three-phase agreement.
But the prisoner issue has been the focus of a recent wave of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with Palestinian demonstrations turning into clashes with Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers. In one incident Saturday, about 200 Palestinians broke through a fence surrounding the Jewish settlement of Ariel, where they stoned houses and burned utility poles before being dispersed by police.
About 1,700 Palestinian prisoners have reportedly joined the hunger strike intended to draw attention to the issue.
Unless the Palestinians agree to Israel's interpretation of the agreement, however, and stop what Netanyahu's government considers violations, Israel has said it will not carry out the next troop withdrawal from the West Bank, due Dec. 18. On Sunday, Cabinet members reaffirmed that decision.
"They said . . . enough is enough. If the Palestinians comply, we comply. If they don't comply, we stop the process," Netanyahu told Reuters.
Mahmoud Abbas, a senior Palestinian official who is Arafat's deputy, said in response that Netanyahu was "not telling the truth" about the prisoner issue.
"At Wye River [the Maryland conference center where the October agreement was hammered out], after long hours of give and take, the agreement was that 750 political prisoners must be released," Abbas told Palestinian Television.
As the two sides argued, Israeli President Ezer Weizman called on Clinton, who invested dozens of hours negotiating the accord, to get it back on track.
"It's right for him to come here not only for celebrations, but rather to see if he can do something to move the cart out of the mud," Weizman told reporters.
If the disputes are unresolved by the time he arrives, the U.S. president may be forced to try to solve them himself. Both sides have credited Clinton with helping them reach the October deal, which also gave him a foreign policy success as he faced impeachment hearings in Congress.
Complicating matters now, however, is the fact that the president's own visit has become a subject of heated controversy between Israel and the Palestinians. Underlying virtually all the differences are the uses the two sides want to make of Clinton's presence.
The Palestinians, who are delighted at the prospect of the first visit by an American president to Palestinian-ruled land, hope to use the trip to bolster their claims to sovereignty and to show off a steadily warming U.S.-Palestinian relationship.
Israel, which fears just that, is stressing that Clinton's visit to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip should be held without the trappings of statehood and that his stay in Israel should be "meaningful" to balance the likely substantive and emotional impact of the Palestinian leg of the trip.