Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will travel to the Middle East on Sept. 1 in an effort to accelerate peace negotiations, but the Clinton administration yesterday denied Israeli press reports that it is putting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to carry out an immediate troop withdrawal.
White House and State Department officials said a letter from President Clinton to Barak over the weekend did not call for Israel to begin promptly turning over an additional 13 percent of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, as reported yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Rather, they described Clinton's letter as a response to a letter from Barak and said it dealt with many aspects of Middle East negotiations, including the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria. The texts of the two letters have not been made public.
At issue is Barak's desire to delay Israel's obligations under the Wye agreement, named after the conference center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met last October and hammered out an interim deal under pressure from the United States and Jordan.
Barak has said he would prefer to undertake the troop pullback after the start of what are known as "final status" negotiations over the most sensitive issues between Israel and the Palestinians, including possible Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian claim to a part of Jerusalem.
"What was portrayed as an American attempt to come down on the prime minister through this letter is a false report, and it is not accurate," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "And what we understand is going on is the Israeli government is laying out some of its ideas for how to not only implement the Wye agreement, but do so in a way that increases the chances for a successful permanent status agreement. And that is something that we have no problem with."
Rubin said Barak has already promised Albright that he will carry out the Wye agreement as written, if he cannot persuade Arafat to accept a modified schedule.
The Haaretz story "is almost completely inaccurate, other than the fact that there was a letter," a White House official said. "Wye was hardly mentioned. This is just part of a continuing dialogue -- the president talked to Mr. Barak twice last week."
Meanwhile, at the State Department, Albright and Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross held hands and swayed with the music yesterday as 170 Israeli and Arab youths sang the theme song from their "Seeds of Peace" conflict resolution camp. "Seeds of Peace" brings young people to the United States each year in an effort to break down hostility between Israelis and their neighbors.
"This is a hope-filled time," Albright told them.
"The road ahead will not be easy," she said. "All sides have hard issues to confront and difficult choices to make. Israelis and Palestinians are now sorting out the best ways to implement the Wye accords. It's also important that they begin discussing soon the difficult issues of a permanent-status agreement."
The permanent status negotiations were originally scheduled to last five years and be completed last May, but except for one ceremonial session, they never actually began.