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Mideast talks fail; Israel given final offer

It now takes two hands to count U.S.-sponsored Middle East meetings that have ended without result over the past two years.

At the latest one Tuesday in London, an exasperated Secretary of State Madeleine Albright set a deadline for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept Washington's compromise proposal for an Israeli troop withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank.

If he agrees by next Monday, President Clinton is ready to preside over the ceremonial launching of talks between Israel and the Palestinians on the final phase of the 1993 Oslo accord _ a permanent peace agreement, Albright said.

If Netanyahu balks, then "we will have to re-examine our approach to the peace process," Albright said. She did not specify what the Clinton administration might do differently, except that it would not abandon its role as mediator.

One option is to make the U.S. initiative public and openly blame Israel for the failure of the peace talks, a step advocated by Palestinian negotiators.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat already has his ticket to the White House, having accepted the American initiative last month.

Over the next six days, it will be up to the U.S. Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, and Netanyahu aides Danny Naveh and Yitzhak Molcho, to try to resolve the differences.

It was not clear how Albright expected mid-level negotiators to succeed where she had failed, especially with Netanyahu adamant that Israel could not accept the American withdrawal proposal.

"The difficulty arises from a very simple point. We cannot compromise on Israeli security," Netanyahu said before returning to Israel. "We have not resolved the territorial issue of the further redeployment."

Israel's best offer has been a withdrawal from 9 percent of the West Bank, provided the Palestinians make a better effort to combat Islamic militants who have carried out more than a dozen suicide bombings in Israel since 1994. Israeli officials have said Netanyahu might raise his offer to 11 percent.

Back in Israel, Netanyahu faces threats from far-right lawmakers who say they will bring down his government if he hands any land to Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which now has full or partial control over 27 percent of the West Bank.

At her news conference Tuesday, Albright was careful to interlace her tough remarks with compliments to Netanyahu, saying that he was "creative and helpful" in the negotiations and that some progress had been made.

However, she made it clear that "the invitation to the Washington meeting is on the basis of those (American) ideas, and watering them down is not in the works."

Albright dismissed Netanyahu's claim that the American plan endangers Israel. The American ideas "are fair and balanced and do not threaten Israeli security," she said.

Washington's proposal, widely reported and never denied, calls for Israel to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank over 12 weeks, with each small pullback greeted by Palestinian security gestures.

Arafat was pushed to the sidelines here, since he had said before the talks that he would go along with the Americans.

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