Talks in London next month with Yasser Arafat may set the stage for a long-delayed West Bank troop withdrawal, an upbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.
Netanyahu said he didn't want to raise expectations, "but then again we all want to be able to surprise ourselves and the world." He said he was willing to meet Arafat face-to-face at the meeting.U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is to hold separate meetings in the British capital on May 4 with Netanyahu and Arafat on the scope of an Israeli troop pullback.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet with Arafat and Netanyahu, also separately, to discuss the Palestinian airport and a Gaza industrial park whose openings have been delayed because of disagreements with Israel over security arrangements.
Blair had breakfast with Netanyahu on Tuesday, wrapping up a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas during which he created the impression of new momentum in the stalled talks even though little actual progress was made.
He appeared to have won the trust of both sides with his easy charm. A new player in the process, Blair also brought with him the prestige of having negotiated a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
Blair too said he was cautious but shared Netanyahu's upbeat mood. "As the prime minister just said, if we can surprise ourselves . . . let's do so," he told a joint news conference Tuesday.
Albright has summoned Netanyahu and Arafat for separate meetings in the past, each time with expectations that those talks would lead to a summit. Arafat and Netanyahu most recently met in October.
The talks also took on greater urgency because U.S. officials indicated that their patience was running out.
"The time is running out for these hard decisions to be made," U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said. Rubin would not rule out that the United States would withdraw as mediator if the London talks ended inconclusively.
The United States has proposed that Israel hand over 13.1 percent of the West Bank in several stages over 12 weeks, with each pullback met by Palestinian security gestures.
Netanyahu has said he would withdraw from no more than 9 percent, but Israeli officials suggested Monday that Israel was willing to increase the offer to 11 percent.
Arafat has said he would "deal positively" with the U.S. initiative. The United States expects him to take a number of security measures, such as disarming Islamic militants.