Although it is too early to call it a breakthrough, the upbeat assessment of Wednesday’s summit in the Gaza Strip between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat sets the stage for talks next week in Washington between the two leaders and President Bill Clinton.
“We made significant and substantial progress,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the four-hour meeting at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and the Palestinian-controlled Gaza. “We are in a far better position to finalize all the [outstanding] issues.”
But Clinton at Thursday’s summit clearly has his work cut out for him, Albright said, noting that “there are still many decisions to be made” before the next step in the peace process can be taken. And she said Clinton is “going to be very much involved in a lot of the detailed work.”
“He has a very special and uncanny ability to work with people who have difficult problems like these. He puts himself in their shoes,” she said.
“I wasn’t born yesterday. There are still very many hard problems out there that the leaders themselves are very much aware of, and they know that they are the ones that have to make the hard decisions.”
Nevertheless, Albright said she detected in the talks a “new spirit [that] was very helpful and I hope very much that it will be carried on to Washington.”
Perhaps fueling that belief was Netanyahu’s surprise decision to join Albright and Arafat for lunch in Gaza, the first time the Israeli prime minister has entered Palestinian-controlled territory since his election in 1996.
Albright said also that she believed there was a “greater sense of urgency” to reach an accord.
“These two leaders here are putting their shoulders to the wheel,” she said.
Wednesday’s summit was the second meeting in 11 days for Arafat and Netanyahu. In an Oval Office meeting, both leaders pledged to return to Washington in mid-October in an attempt to conclude another step in the peace process.
The Gaza meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu came after Albright had held separate meetings Tuesday with each leader in an attempt to break an impasse that has plagued the peace process for 19 months.
State Department spokesman James Rubin echoed Albright’s analysis, telling reporters Tuesday that some progress had been made in Gaza but that dozens of issues remained to be resolved. He pointed out that U.S. envoys Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross would remain in the region to continue discussions after Albright left for Brussels late Wednesday.
As they prepared to enter the talks, Netanyahu spokesman Aviv Bushinsky said “all the major issues that are at stake” would be discussed.
At a press conference arranged by the United Nations before the Gaza meeting, Arafat told reporters that the peace process was in a “delicate and very sensitive stage.”
Arafat was referring to a U.S. proposal for Israel to withdraw its troops from another 13 percent of the West Bank, increasing to 40 percent the territory controlled by the Palestinians. Netanyahu announced during his visit to the United States two weeks ago that Israel was prepared to comply with that request. The only thing holding up the withdrawal, he said, was the Palestinians’ refusal to crack down on terrorists in territory they control.
In addition, Netanyahu said, the Palestinian Authority was failing to implement a series of other security measures, including confiscating all illegal weapons.
Arafat complained that despite the promise, Netanyahu has not shown him a map of the area to be handed over. And he said he wanted Israel to disarm Israelis living in the West Bank.
Joining Albright in the region was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, who was seeking to help Israeli and Palestinian negotiators nail down a series of security-related deals. Among them would be the opening of a Palestinian airport, a seaport and an industrial zone in the Gaza Strip, and a secure road allowing Palestinians free access between Gaza and West Bank areas they control.