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Middle East: Clinton Visit Raises Chances For Israeli - Palestinian Peace

Prague, 15 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton leaves Israel tonight after a trip which won a historic affirmation by Palestinians to live peacefully with Israelis but failed to break current deadlocks in the peace process.

Clinton held a three-way summit early today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. It was an attempt to persuade Netanyahu to resume handing over land to the Palestinians under the Wye peace accord which Clinton brokered two months ago.

That agreement calls for Israel to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in return for Palestinian steps on security.

But at the end of today's two hour meeting at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said in a press conference carried by CNN that he would not commit to a date for resuming Israeli withdrawals on the West Bank.

"There will be redeployment speedily as soon as the Palestinians fulfill their part, the other provisions, and if they do it, I cannot tell you how much time it will take, the faster they do it, the faster we will redeploy."

Netanyahu has frozen any further land transfers under the Wye accord until Arafat accepts Israeli terms for freeing Palestinian political prisoners and halts violent Palestinian street protests over the issue. He also insists Arafat drop his repeatedly stated intention to declare an independent Palestinian state next May when the five-year-old Oslo interim peace accords expire.

The failure of today's three-way summit leaves the mechanics of implementing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process almost where they were before Clinton's arrival in Israel on Sunday. The trip by the U.S. president, which was planned since the Wye accord signing in October, was intended to maintain the momentum of that deal, which itself restarted the peace process after a deadlock of more than 18 months.

But analysts say that even as Clinton leaves the Mideast with the peace process still suspended, his visit has raised the chances that Israelis and Palestinians may one day co-exist in peace.

Clinton scored a first for the peace process yesterday in Gaza City when he won a resounding affirmation from Palestinian leaders that they and the Israelis can, as he expressed it, "share this piece of land without war with (one another) forever."

The Palestinian National Council, which includes aging guerrillas who for years have fought against Israel, renounced in Clinton's presence sections of the Palestinian Charter which call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

In an effort to assure their gesture will lay a stronger foundation for trust between the Israelis and Palestinians in the future, Clinton congratulated the delegates after the show-of-hands renunciation. He predicted the act would transcend the current negotiating deadlocks and touch the people of Israel directly.

"I want to talk to you about how we can get beyond this moment where there is still so much mistrust and misunderstanding and quite a few missteps. You did a good thing today in raising your hands. You know why? It has nothing to do with the government in Israel. You will touch the people of Israel."

Clinton also brought hundreds of the assembled Palestinian leaders to their feet when he told them he was, in his words, "profoundly honored to be the first American president to address the Palestinian people in a city governed by Palestinians."

Analysts say that by visiting the Palestinian-controlled territories, Clinton marked a historic moment in a half-century of U.S. efforts to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and win the trust of both sides.

Deborah Sontag, writing in today's New York Times, says Clinton presided over what amounted to a large reunion of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the moment of its public transformation from a once outlawed group to nearly sovereign entity and diplomatic partner of the United States.

If the Palestinians' faithfully maintain the commitment to peaceful methods reflected in yesterday's speeches, Sontag and other analysts predict, Israelis are likely to go forward with the peace agreements, despite the ups and downs of the process.