Barak, Arafat pledge peace

Leaders focus on implementation of Wye River accords

`New road to trust'

Israeli chief to meet with Clinton Thursday

July 12, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Sounding conciliatory and confident, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly pledged yesterday to move the beleaguered peace process forward.

If their first meeting went beyond pleasantries and promises, neither leader gave any hint of it after they emerged from a 75-minute meeting at a border crossing between the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel.

Barak viewed yesterday's meeting as a new beginning for the often wary peace partners, saying the two sides had "embarked on a new road to trust."

"Both sides have suffered enough," Barak said. "It's about time to find a way to nurture mutual respect, a kind of partnership, to make peace together." He presented the 69-year-old former terrorist with leather-bound copies of the Bible and the Koran.

Calling the smiling Barak "my friend . . . my partner," Arafat said he was confident that together they could "give the peace process seriously and truly the chance it deserves." He offered the 57-year-old former commando a bronze candelabrum topped with a dove.

Barak, who took office Tuesday, set as his first priority reviving the stalled Middle East peace process and restoring trust among the negotiating partners. To that end, he scheduled a series of meetings with Arab leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last Friday, Arafat yesterday and Jordan's King Abdullah II tomorrow night.

The Israeli prime minister heads for Washington Thursday, where he will meet twice with President Clinton. And on his way back to Israel, Barak plans to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yesterday's meeting between Barak and Arafat was the first of note since former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze implementation of a land-for-security agreement signed in Washington last fall. Known as the Wye River agreement, the U.S.-brokered pact was designed to lead to fulfillment of prior commitments of the two sides that involved land transfers and the fight against terrorism. Controversy over its implementation led to elections in May, which ended Netanyahu's three years in office.

After Barak was sworn in Tuesday, reports began circulating that he would seek to delay the implementation of the Wye agreement and begin the more difficult final-status talks.

Those negotiations, aimed at concluding the five-year interim peace agreement, will deal with the most critical -- and controversial -- issues facing Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers. They include the future of Jerusalem, the fate of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and the borders of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, as recently as Friday, insisted they would reject any delay in implementing the Wye accord.

Implementation expected

Arafat said yesterday he expects Barak to implement the outstanding aspects of Wye, including the transfer of additional West Bank land to Palestinian control, release of 750 Palestinian political prisoners and approval to construct a port in Gaza.

Barak said his government "will implement Wye and shape and coordinate with the chairman [Arafat] and the Palestinian Authority the way in which the advancement of the permanent status negotiations will be combined with the implementation of the Wye agreement." Barak appeared to suggest that the two would occur in tandem.

"We are determined to find a way to overcome all the obstacles and coordinate under mutual understanding the way to move forward," he said.

When Arafat was pressed on whether he would accept changes in the Wye agreement and the cancellation of the final phase of withdrawing Israeli troops from West Bank land, he implied that he would accept neither.

"The most important thing for us is that agreements signed be accurately and honestly implemented," he said. "The prime minister said he'll implement Wye River and final status negotiations, and I believe we'll do both."

Arafat, who signed the historic Oslo peace accords with the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, also called on Barak to freeze Jewish settlement activity in the occupied territories. Barak has said he won't build new settlements and won't dismantle existing ones.

For his part, Arafat said the Palestinian Authority would continue its "policy of zero tolerance to violence and terror whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis." Terror attacks, which nearly sabotaged the peace process three years ago, subsided during the administration of Netanyahu's hard-line government.

Tough negotiations expected

Barak said he had "no illusions" about the future: "We are going into tough, long negotiations with many ups and down and crises."

Repeating an earlier sentiment, Barak said the two sides can end 100 years of conflict in the Middle East through determination, conviction and commitment.

Yesterday's meeting took place in a military compound at the Erez Crossing. Arafat met Netanyahu there in 1996, after the Israeli politician won election, but the atmosphere was far different.

Netanyahu had vowed to never shake Arafat's hand and had postponed his post-election meeting with the Palestinian leader for months. When they finally met, a handshake occurred, but it was brief. Yesterday, Barak and Arafat shook hands repeatedly.

In Washington, White House spokesman Barry Toiv said President Clinton was pleased to see Israelis and Palestinians talking again, and that Clinton was looking forward to meeting Barak at the White House this week.

Wire services contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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