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Home > News & Politics > Israel > Glimmer of hope in peace talks




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Glimmer of hope in peace talks

By NAOMI SEGAL
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
December 18, 2000

JERUSALEM—Planned talks this week involving U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials could represent President Clinton's last effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office next month.

The Israelis and Palestinians plan to meet separately with American officials, though there is a possibility of three-way talks if enough progress is made in the initial discussions.

Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat spoke of meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak if the groundwork is prepared in Washington.

The talks were slated to get under way Tuesday, as the election drama over who would oppose Barak was playing out.

Despite the diplomatic efforts, there was more bloodshed in the region this week.

On Sunday, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip, and an Israeli sustained serious head wounds in a shooting attack in the West Bank.

In another incident, an explosion killed a senior activist in Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank. The Israeli army said the man apparently blew himself up while preparing a bomb. A Fatah official called the blast an Israeli assassination.

In more violence, Palestinians fired on two Israeli buses in the Gaza Strip, but no one was hurt. In the West Bank, Palestinians detonated three roadside bombs as an Israeli military convoy was passing, but they did not cause any injuries.

On Monday, two Israelis were lightly injured in a shooting attack on an Israeli bus in the Jordan Valley.

The decision to hold talks in Washington follows weeks of diplomatic feelers to renew negotiations, suspended by Israel after the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September.

The breakthrough for the Washington talks apparently came Saturday night after Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami met with senior Palestinian officials.

Late last week, Arafat met with Ben-Ami. Just hours after that meeting, clashes broke out in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Arafat, who met Sunday with a delegation of left-wing Israeli legislators, said he was ready to meet with Barak.

"If it is needed, why not?" Arafat asked.

Barak expressed hope Sunday that the Washington talks would lead to a resumption of negotiations on a final-status agreement.

Barak resigned last week, saying he sought a new mandate from the public to end the violence and forge peace with the Palestinians. His re-election hopes effectively hinge on a peace deal.

The special elections for prime minister triggered by Barak's resignation are expected to be held in early February.

Opinion polls have shown Barak trailing his two potential challengers from the opposition Likud Party, party chairman Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu still must overcome legal hurdles before he can run. Israeli law stipulates that only sitting Knesset members can run for prime minister in the special election, and Netanyahu resigned from the Knesset after Barak defeated him in May 1999.

The Knesset gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would allow any citizen to run in the early election. The bill must pass two more votes before becoming law. The Knesset's action on the bill is moot, however, because Netanyahu--wary of facing the same political deadlock that Barak has confronted-said last week he would only run for the premiership if the Knesset voted to dissolve itself. That would result in general elections for both Parliament and prime minister.

On Monday, rabbinic leaders of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party dealt Netanyahu a blow, announcing that they oppose a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold general elections.

Shas legislators hold the key to the situation, as the backing of their 17 Knesset members is needed to assemble a 61-person majority for an early election bill. They are believed to oppose general elections for fear they would lose some seats to the Likud.

Despite the move of the Shas rabbis, Netanyahu said he will still seek the Likud Party's nomination in party primaries Tuesday.

While politicians sort out the election puzzle, Likud officials condemned the government's new diplomatic effort, saying they would not consider themselves bound by any agreement Barak reaches in the pre-election period.

Reports suggest that the diplomatic breakthrough resulted from Barak's willingness to grant the Palestinians sovereignty over Jerusalem's Temple Mount in exchange for deferring a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz wrote that U.S. officials have put forward a new proposal in which the Palestinians would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount. They also would receive control over 95 percent of the West Bank and an additional 3 percent of land within Israel's pre-1967 border.

In exchange, the refugee issue would not be mentioned in the accord, which would explicitly state that the Palestinians relinquish further claims on Israel.

Ha'aretz also quoted Palestinian sources as saying Arafat has come under intense American pressure in light of the Israeli elections.

In public remarks Saturday night, Barak rejected the notion of Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, insisting there had been no shift in his position on the matter.

Finance Minister Avraham Shohat told an Israeli economic forum Sunday that a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority already has been drafted and could be approved quickly, the Jerusalem Post reported. However, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said no agreement has been reached on any issue. Eric Fingerhut visited Israel last week as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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