U.S. envoy Dennis Ross returned to Israel Friday for a last try at persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept Washington's proposal for a further troop withdrawal from the West Bank.
President Clinton set Monday as a deadline for Israeli acceptance, but a top Netanyahu aide, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, said the Israeli leader would not be rushed."I just think that such an important decision, on an issue so vital to our future, cannot be made with someone standing over us with a stopwatch," Naveh told Israel radio Friday.
As soon as he arrived, Ross went to a meeting in Jerusalem with Netanyahu for a final try at getting him to go along with the deal. The meeting ended after 90 minutes, and the prime minister's office said a second meeting has not been set yet. It said no details on the talks would be released.
Netanyahu says the U.S. plan - an Israeli withdrawal from another 13 percent of the West Bank over a 12-week period, matched by greater Palestinian efforts against terrorism - would harm Israel's security.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has already accepted the proposal even though it falls far short of the 30 percent withdrawal he had wanted.
Earlier this week, following two days of inconclusive talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in London, the United States took its boldest step yet in pressuring Israel.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced then that the two sides had until Monday to accept or reject the American plan and then launch negotiations on a permanent peace agreement under Clinton's auspices in Washington.
Albright said the U.S. proposal would not be watered down, although Ross' return to Israel suggests there might be some room for modifications.
Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily reported Friday that the United States is prepared to postpone the deadline for a week if Netanyahu made a real effort to win support in his Cabinet for the American plan.
However, Netanyahu aides said the U.S. proposal was not on the Cabinet agenda for Sunday.
An Israeli official has also suggested there might be a compromise - reviving a previously rejected U.S. proposal to designate special zones so as to allow Palestinian self-rule - minus Palestinian police.
Netanyahu faces fierce opposition from far-right coalition partners who have threatened to bring down his government if he hands over land to the Palestinians. The hawks have the power to topple the coalition, but it is believed they might be bluffing - since the alternative to Netanyahu is a more dovish leader.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have said they will not come to Washington for more talks unless they are assured Israel will accept the U.S. proposals.
"Going to Washington will not be for negotiations, it will be for signing the agreement," said Nabil Abourdeneh, an adviser to Arafat.