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Netanyahu Halts Peace Steps, Says Arafat Must Retract 'Guns' Remark

Mideast: In response, Palestinian leader reaffirms support for Wye accord. Israeli lawmakers debate pact.

November 17, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that he was stopping the new Israeli-Palestinian peace accord until Yasser Arafat retracts remarks calling for an independent state with "guns ready" to defend Palestinian rights.

The Palestinian Authority president's comments and Netanyahu's response marked another setback in the troubled peace process--just days before Israeli troops were scheduled to withdraw from a portion of the West Bank.

That withdrawal, along with other steps in the peace agreement, including the opening of a Palestinian airport and release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, was now on hold, senior Israeli officials said.

In an unusually swift attempt to defuse the crisis, Arafat summoned journalists to his office in the West Bank city of Jericho late Monday and insisted that he is committed to peace.

Threats and provocative statements from both sides have repeatedly jeopardized the U.S.-brokered peace plan signed at the White House on Oct. 23. But U.S. officials continued to work to hold the threads together. U.S. special envoy Dennis B. Ross was meeting late Monday with Arafat after earlier sessions with the Israelis.

Under terms of the agreement reached at Maryland's Wye Plantation, Israel agreed to cede an additional 13% of the West Bank to Palestinian control. The pullout was to begin by Friday. In exchange, the Palestinians promised to wage a systematic battle against terrorism.

Speaking in a rowdy session of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, that paradoxically was convened to approve the agreement, Netanyahu said he could not move ahead because Arafat's statements seemed to advocate violence.

Netanyahu--who telephoned Arafat earlier Monday to complain--objected to the Palestinian leader's oft-repeated threat to declare unilaterally an independent state in May.

On Sunday, Arafat warned that Palestinians could resume their intifada, or uprising, if Israel reneges on the peace deal. And in a further affront, Arafat told supporters that "our guns are ready" and "we will raise them" if the Israelis "stop us from praying in Jerusalem." Footage of Arafat making the comments to a meeting of his political movement, Fatah, was broadcast on Israeli television.

Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. The holy city's status may well be the single most nettlesome problem to be resolved in final negotiations that are scheduled to begin later this month.

"I have no intention of implementing any [troop] withdrawal under these conditions . . . before this [statement] is corrected publicly and clearly," Netanyahu told the Knesset. "We are not prepared to move ahead under the threat and the shadow of violence."

About four hours after Netanyahu's speech, Arafat summoned reporters, including an Israeli television crew. He said the Palestinians are "fully committed" to the agreement. His reference to guns was "nothing more than an example," he said, without elaborating.

"Peace for us is a strategic goal," Arafat said, "and we hope it will also be so for the Israeli side."

A senior spokesman for Netanyahu, David Bar-Illan, said as far as he was concerned, Arafat's new remarks did not satisfy the Israeli demand for a retraction. But Bar-Illan said Netanyahu's Cabinet will decide at a meeting Wednesday whether to go ahead with the troop withdrawal and other Wye elements.

To stir the pot further, Israel's hawkish foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, enraged Palestinians by encouraging Jewish settlers to seize pockets of West Bank land before it is handed away.

"Let everyone there move, run, grab more hills and expand the territory," Sharon told a gathering of center-right politicians Sunday night. "What we seize will be ours, what we don't will be theirs."

On Monday, a group of about 30 settlers, saying they were acting on Sharon's advice, erected a couple of huts on a hill outside their settlement.

In Washington, the Clinton administration said there was "no place" for inflammatory rhetoric.

"The Israelis and the Palestinians signed a document at the White House which imposed certain obligations on them," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "Those obligations did not come with conditions about every word that was said by every party. . . . It is our expectation that both sides will implement the agreement as signed."

The peace process since the signing of the Wye accord has been a series of ups and downs and stops and starts, each crisis seemingly resolved, only to give way to another.

Arafat's comments stunned many observers, including U.S. envoys. The Palestinian leader may have been seeking to appeal to his disgruntled rank and file and his core street support, especially in the wake of his declining popularity. Arafat has come under criticism from some Palestinians for arresting Islamic leaders as part of the Wye agreement, and for having seemingly sold out to U.S. and Israeli demands.

Even before Netanyahu's Knesset appearance, senior Palestinian officials were seeking to backpedal from Arafat's comments, saying he had been "misinterpreted."

And Netanyahu, even as he threatened to suspend implementation of the agreement, asked the Knesset to vote in favor of it. He defended the deal he signed and boasted of resisting U.S. pressure to give up more land.

"This is not a day to rejoice," Netanyahu told the Knesset as many members heckled him. "We are separating from dear parts of Eretz Israel [Greater Israel]. But on the other hand, we are also releasing ourselves from the clutches of the Oslo agreement. . . . We have managed to reduce the Oslo withdrawals to the minimum possible."

Debate in the Knesset was to continue well into tonight before a vote is taken. With the left and other opposition parties in favor, the agreement is expected to be approved by a comfortable margin.

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