January saw Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu call a halt to further movement in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, finally making it clear to a watching world that Israel was serious about its demands for reciprocity in the Oslo process.
Netanyahu went to the United States for meetings with President Bill Clinton armed with two of the toughest announcements made by his often fractious Cabinet in months. First, the ministers agreed that an Israeli withdrawal from more areas of Judea-Samaria would only take place once the PA honoured a list of specific obligations it had thus far not met .
In a second announcement, the Cabinet specified large segments of disputed territory which Israel intended to hold onto under any peace settlement with the PA. These included "security zones" flanking the eastern and western boundaries of Judea-Samaria; the area surrounding Jerusalem: areas of Jewish communities; infrastructure interests; "military-security sites with strategic significance or importance to Israel's early warning-capability"; transport routes; and "historic sites sacred to the Jewish people".
The double-blow to inflated PA expectations was not received well-- either in Arafat's state-in-the-making or in Washington, where officials anticipating what the State Department called a "significant and credible" withdrawal called the announcements "unhelpful". PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who was scheduled to visit the White House two days after Netanyahu, urged Clinton to intervene to save the deadlocked Oslo process from collapse. Should this not happen, Arafat hinted, violent opposition could resume: "If, Allah forbid, there is a failure in this peace process, then all options are open."
Netanyahu's two White House encounters with Clinton were reportedly frank. Israeli officials later expressed a more positive view of the discussions than did their US counterparts. The bottom line: Clinton wanted Israel to cede a further 12 per cent of Judea-Samaria to Arafat, while Israel was prepared for a joint second and third withdrawal of nine per cent, contingent on the PA's meeting of its obligations. The president suggested a series of phased pullbacks, concomitant with PA steps against terrorism, including prosecution and long-term jailing of murder suspects.
Netanyahu emerged from the second meeting just hours before Washington and the world reeled with the news of Clinton's most damaging scandal yet. The breaking of the Monica Lewinsky story--allegations that Clinton had an affair with a young White House intern and then urged her to lie about it under oath--saw US pressure on Israel, as well as media interest in the Middle East issue, all but evaporate. The Arafat meeting with Clinton received considerably less coverage than expected, and the Israeli-Arab conflict remained far down the list of front-page priorities around the world a full week later. The question was asked: how can the Clinton Administration take meaningful steps in Mideast diplomacy while embroiled in an embarrassing crisis?
Away from most headlines, of course, developments in the Middle East continued. Netanyahu's domestic popularity ratings improved considerably following his performance in Washington, where he was seen to have stood firm against growing pressure .
Meanwhile, Arab efforts to isolate Israel were stepped up. Arafat visited several regional capitals, complaining about the lack of progress in the US. He also began planning for an Arab summit on the issue, and said he rejected the Americans' "phased withdrawal with compliance" plan. Antagonism towards America, already pumped up by the involvement of US warships in joint Israel-Turkey naval manoeuvres, continued to grow. The increased possibility of a US military strike against Saddam Hussein, who continues to defy United Nations weapons monitors, promises further to polarise the parties.