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Israel Carves Out Tough Position on Withdrawal

Mideast: Cabinet votes to retain West Bank 'security zones,' strategic resources. Palestinians reject proposals.

January 15, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Cabinet laid out Wednesday yet another severe bargaining position in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, voting to keep large swaths of the occupied West Bank and strategic resources under Israeli control in any agreement to end their long conflict.

The Cabinet agreed on a list of Israel's "vital and national interests," including "security zones" on both sides of the West Bank, Jewish settlements, the area around Jerusalem, and water, electricty and transportation infrastructure.

The decision, which is the right-wing government's attempt to strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of what is expected to be a tough meeting with President Clinton in Washington next week, was swiftly denounced by the Palestinans.

The Clinton administration is pressing Netanyahu to carry out a "significant and credible" pullback of Israeli troops from the West Bank as part of an interim accord between Israel and the Palestinians before starting negotiations on a final peace agreement.

The United States is the principal guarantor of the Oslo peace accords that Israel and the Palestinians signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 and is trying to revive the negotiations that have been deadlocked for almost a year.

On Tuesday, the Israeli Cabinet set down pages of conditions it says the Palestinians must meet before Israel will hand over any more of the land it captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Both moves drew fire from the Palestinians, who rejected Wednesday's proposal, which would leave them with a homeland looking a lot like a piece of Swiss cheese between two Israeli slices of bread.

"This is another symptom of the very severe political sickness of this government," Ahmad Tibi, an advisor to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, said on Israeli radio. "There is no chance with this position and these maps to arrive at a comprehensive settlement."

Clinton is to meet with Arafat two days after Netanyahu and is expected to push the Palestinian leader for better cooperation in fighting terrorism against Israel.

Arafat, in Jordan, urged Clinton to save the peace process from collapse. Asked by reporters what would happen if the U.S. talks failed to produce results, Arafat said: "If, God forbid, there is a failure in this peace process, then all options are open."

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state with their capital in East Jerusalem. They insist that all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be given over to them. At the very least, they expect to receive a significant part of the West Bank in a contiguous land mass.

The Cabinet resolution approved Wednesday says Israel must hold on to areas of "vital and national interests in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley" in interim and final negotiations. Judea and Samaria is the biblical name for the West Bank that many right-wing nationalist Jews still use today.

The government proposes holding:

* Security strips on the eastern and western borders of the West Bank.

* Jewish settlements and areas around Jerusalem.

* Water, electricity and transportation infrastructure.

* Sites of strategic importance or "of pertinence to Israel's deterrence capability."

* A grid of highways.

* Jewish holy sites.

"This doesn't leave much" for the Palestinians, a U.S. official said after seeing the Israeli list. "One can only assume it is a starting point. . . . It sounds like they are anticipating a tough meeting [Tuesday] with the president."

The Cabinet avoided drawing specific maps for a pullback that might rile members of Netanyahu's fractious coalition.

National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai have different views on how much land Israel can afford to give up to the Palestinians, while the "Land of Israel" coalition members in parliament have said they will quit the government if any more territory is handed over to the Palestinians.

Reinforcing this view, tens of thousands of right-wing protesters demonstrated against the land-for-peace agreements in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night in the plaza where then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for having launched the peace process with the Palestinians. They carried banners saying, "Keep the Land of Israel Intact" and "Netanyahu, You Have No Mandate."

With the resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy last week and his Gesher Party's withdrawal from the government, Netanyahu's coalition has been pared to 61 members of the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. Many of the coalition members oppose the Oslo accords.

The opposition Labor Party, which would probably agree with the general framework outlined by the government on Israel's vital interests, still blasted the Cabinet decisions. "It is my feeling that someone is looking for excuses how not to continue the peace process," said Eli Goldschmidt, chairman of the Labor Party faction in parliament. "One can go on posing lists of demands without end."

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