Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's efforts to break a 14-month deadlock in Middle East peacemaking appeared headed for failure before they even began when Israel on Sunday rejected a U.S. proposal for a transfer of an additional 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for London, where he is scheduled to meet with Albright today, his spokesman publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United States sought a 13 percent pullback, and then he dismissed it unconditionally.
"Israel will not agree to the U.S. proposal for a 13 percent redeployment," David Bar-Illan said on Israeli radio.
Bar-Illan predicted there will be "no dramatic breakthrough" in the separate talks that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat are to hold with Albright.
Arafat, who initially demanded 30 percent more of the West Bank land that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War, has accepted the U.S. proposal for a phased 13 percent pullback linked to a Palestinian crackdown on violent extremists and to other security measures. By doing so, he apparently intends to make sure that a collapse of the peace process is blamed on Israel.
Israel had been trying to avoid an official U.S. announcement of its proposal but suddenly pre-empted one, apparently trying to lessen the impact of an American-Palestinian stance in London against the Israeli government.
Netanyahu has agreed publicly to hand over an additional 9 percent of the West Bank, and, once Arafat agreed to the U.S. proposal, the prime minister hinted that he might be willing to go up to 11 percent. He says that anything more would put Israel's national security at risk.
Vice President Al Gore, in the Middle East to attend Israel's 50th anniversary celebrations, shuttled between meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat over the weekend and urged the two sides to "make the difficult decisions" to reach the next step in the peace talks.
After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday, Gore tried to lower expectations for the London talks and suggested that negotiations will continue beyond the meetings hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"There is a long way to go in the peace process regardless of the outcome of the London meeting," Gore said reporters.
But the State Department has repeatedly warned that it may abandon its mediation role if the stalemate continues, and this weekend it again pressed Netanyahu to accept the U.S. proposal.
Arafat has said that he will declare statehood in May 1999 regardless of whether he has a deal with Israel. The London meetings are to take place exactly a year before the May 4, 1999, deadline for the completion of peace negotiations that was set in the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement signed on the White House lawn in September 1993.
Under the accord, Israel turned over the Gaza Strip, West Bank cities and hundreds of villages to Palestinian rule. This and subsequent agreements called for Israel to undertake three further redeployments before final peace negotiations.
Palestinian leaders have suggested that anything short of a breakthrough in London will lead to an explosion of violence among Palestinians who have lost hope in the 5-year-old peace process.